Val Litwin (left)

BC Chamber president and CEO meets with local chambers

Labour and transportation emerged as issues for local business at a meeting of regional chambers of commerce last Wednesday in Castlegar.

Access to labour and transportation emerged as issues impacting local business at a meeting of regional chambers of commerce last Wednesday.

The meeting was part of the president of the BC Chamber of Commerce’s province-wide tour “to get on-the-ground insight into the issues affecting businesses across B.C.”

It was attended by representatives of the Castlegar& District Chamber of Commerce, the Trail & District Chamber of Commerce, the Kootenay Lake Chamber of Commerce, the Boundary Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Nelson & District Chamber of Commerce and the Nakusp & District Chamber of Commerce, as well a representatives from the BC Chamber.

Following the meeting, Castlegar News sat down with Val Litwin, president and CEO of the BC Chamber of Commerce, to discuss how the meeting went and what the BC Chamber of Commerce is doing to benefit chamber members around the province.

Castlegar News: So what are some of the issues that came up today?

Val Litwin: These area meetings are obviously an opportunity for us to come together and kind of share some of the issues, but it’s also an opportunity for us to kind of explore what are the economic opportunities for us to create as a region. So it was … a mixture of kind of looking at what are some of the choke points that business is experiencing, and what I think we heard today was transportation and labour. On the labour side, access to and occasionally cost of, and then on the transportation side, I think what we learned today, and what we heard loud and clear from the chambers, is the distribution of goods and people, and the movement of goods and people, is an issue in the area.

CN: How exactly is the BC Chamber able to work with the more local chambers to help with these kinds of issues?

VL: We’ve been traveling around the province for about six months now, so this is probably the twelfth area meeting we’ve had in maybe six months, and there’s definitely a lot of trends in terms of what we’re hearing from our community chambers at the regional level, and there’s patterns starting to form. One thing that’s really on the minds of our regional chambers is economic development. How do we create new opportunities for our communities? What gains can we create with smart partnerships with not just our members, but other organizations in the region? Again to drive economic growth. A lot of conversations too about how we can work better with First Nations to create some of the shared win-wins that we all desire.

But you know, we’re B.C.’s biggest and broadest business organization — we have 36,000 members, so it’s just so important for us to actually get out into the regions, find out what’s on their mind and then really take those issues and concerns up to the provincial government and advocate on their behalf, as it makes sense, to try to remove the red tape that makes it easier to do business and, frankly, live in some of these regions.

CN: And so what are some of the trends that you’ve come across?

VL: So we did [the BC Chamber of Commerce Collective Perspective Survey Report] just before Christmas. We sent it out to all 36,000 members across the province. We had 1200 respond, and … from a stats perspective, it’s all been weighted. So none of the data in here is skewed. In other words, if you look at the data, it’s a snapshot of this region too….

Obviously not all regions are exactly equal, but one of the first questions we wanted to ask was, ‘How do you feel about how things are going in your business right now?’ Ninety-eight per cent of businesses in the province of B.C. either think or believe or know they’re in acceptable, good or very good shape, which is a pretty phenomenal result, and this would be congruent with what we’re seeing with B.C. from an economic perspective anyway….

Very interesting was this next question. We asked them — businesses in B.C. — what are your goals over the next five years? Seventy-eight per cent, which is roughly four out of five businesses, said they expect to either grow a bit or grow very significantly. So what we’re seeing in the regions around British Columbia is “Yep, maybe we’re having some issues with labour, maybe that project hasn’t come online yet,” but there’s an optimism. Absolutely there’s an optimism and there’s a feeling that we have to capitalize and sort of carp the diem, to butcher the Latin phrase, because there is an optimism. We’re seeing investment come into the province, and regionally, of course, we’re very hopeful for some of these big resource projects to come online.

And then just one other data point here that I thought was quite interesting is on the subject of economic diversification, which is really kind of a big subject right now … we asked our members what sectors will become more or less important to the B.C. economy in the next five or ten years. … Tourism [is] top of the list, which I think is really interesting. A lot of communities are having conversations around how do we leverage our natural assets. How do we come up with a more clarified and unified brand to actually draw people to our community….

CN: Is there a specific way in which the BC Chamber is making plans to support [tourism]?

VL: I think one of our roles is to obviously support our regional chambers and boards of trade in their visions and dreams they have for their communities, and one of the things we do, obviously, is we spend a lot of time meeting with and advocating in the direction of our elected officials and provincial government.

I think the B.C. government is investing more and more in tourism, and so we see ourselves as a partner not just with our regional chambers and boards of trade on the ground, but to government too. To find the synergies, to find the opportunities to make sure that becomes more of a thriving sector of opportunity in B.C. So an example of that is the Rural Dividend Fund right now, which we’ve seen chambers in this region get some funds from that particular stream, which is really exciting, and some of those chambers will be investing in tourism. So again, we’re making sure we’re letting government know our local communities and regions see this as an opportunity, so lets make sure we’re supporting that movement….

CN: You mentioned it earlier and I kind of knew it was an issue coming in, finding labour and specifically skilled labour. How is the BC Chamber able to help with that?

VL: So first of all, it’s not an issue unique to this region. It’s something we’re hearing across the province. … There’s kind of two or three parts to it. One is access to labour. … One of the ways to address that is to make sure we have enough of the right kind of immigration coming into Canada. We have some particular Visa streams that I think are very good for business in B.C. One is the working holiday Visa program. So you’ve got a lot of the ski resort communities around British Columbia employing a lot of Australians, who want to come over here and have a season on the slopes. So we spend a lot of time making sure that government… it’s a federal program, but we work in partnership with the provincial government to make sure the feds know this is a really important immigration stream for us, for tourism in British Columbia, but for many sectors — not just tourism and hospitality, but other sectors as well.

[Minister of Jobs, Tourism, and Skills Training and Minister Responsible for Labour] Shirley Bond’s ministry, they have a jobs plan and a jobs blueprint, so we have been working with the government to make sure that they understand the regional needs and that we’re planning ahead and making sure that we’re investing in the right kind of training to make sure we have the workers we need for when, for example, some of these big resource projects come online.

So I think it’s about planning for the future, being proactive and making sure the government knows the regional needs when it comes to labour.

CN: You also mentioned being able to afford the labour. How is the BC Chamber able to help with that?

VL: Part of the cost conversation is, to be honest, it’s going to be an election issue. I just think right now everyone is on tenterhooks to find out how that’s going to play out in terms of where the minimum wage is going to go. From a business community standpoint, we understand that we need to be paying our workers more overtime, because there’s a thing called inflation and cost of living, and we need to make sure people have a livable, competitive wage. From our perspective it’s about certainty and predictability. So when business knows, for example, that wage is tied to CPI [consumer price index], then they can actually plan for it. They can fundraise appropriately, they can get the right investment dollars, they can budget. They can load balance how they hire, when they hire. But the fear is that we don’t know when the wages are going up, all of a sudden it’s now injected uncertainty into the business model for our members, and so that’s the big concern. If that minimum wage is moving up, let us know how and when.