Premier Christy Clark's government is putting the final touches on a jobs agenda to be rolled out in September, targeting specific industries with skills training, niche-marketing programs and tax incentives.
The initiative has been in the works for months but appears timed to give the Premier a new focus, just as British Columbians turn the corner on the HST debate.
The results of the HST tax referendum are expected in late August. Ms. Clark's jobs agenda will be unveiled in the weeks following, with her Sept. 30 speech to the province's municipal leaders likely to be used as a major kickoff.
Ms. Clark is still toying with a fall-election call, but even if she holds off for now, she'll be looking for an agenda of her own making. Since she won the Premier's job in February, the HST debate has dominated B.C. politics.
In September, the province will finally have an answer on the future of the tax: If a majority of voters voted 'no' to scrapping the tax, Ms. Clark will be well-positioned to turn the page.
But if the harmonized sales tax is rejected, the Liberal government will have to spend the next 18 months or more untangling harmonization. Ms. Clark will want to demonstrate she can manage the fallout.
B.C. Jobs Minister Pat Bell said in an interview that the package of government assistance offered to Vancouver Shipyards Co. to backstop its bid for the $35-billion national shipbuilding contracts is part of the new jobs model.
To help the B.C. bid for shipyard work, the province put together up to $40-million in tax credits for apprenticeship and training programs, plus a research and development fund, if the company wins the bid. The package, however, falls short of the infrastructure tax credits that the company sought.
But Mr. Bell said the jobs agenda will be innovative, and cited the shipyards package as an example, calling it a departure from the party's long-standing reluctance to pick winners and losers in business.
"It was an industry-specific strategy. It contained some elements you wouldn't have seen previously under our government in the prior ten years. So it indicates a strong willingness on the part of [Ms. Clark]to look outside the box at new ways of doing things," Mr. Bell said.
The province has also been trying out new marketing techniques abroad, a strategy that has been paying off in growing exports to Asia and Europe this year. Although sales to the U.S. stagnated in the first half of 2011, B.C. exports still climbed by 14 per cent over the same period last year. Energy and forestry products, plus industrial goods have led the sales growth, products that are heading increasingly to China, South Korea and Japan.
The province's marketing in Asia – a joint effort with the federal government and industry – is increasingly tailored to specific product lines in selected markets. "If we can follow that strategy, I think we can manage our way through any kind of economic downturn that the U.S. is seeing without significant impacts," Mr. Bell said. "It's the type of thing we'll replicate in other sectors."
Jock Finlayson, economist for the B.C. Business Council, said government needs to focus on exports as the economy slows.
Consumers are responsible for two-thirds of the province's economic activity, and they are pulling back on spending this year. Earlier this month, the business council downgraded its economic growth forecast for the province to 2.2 per cent this year, down from 4 per cent last year.
Mr. Finlayson cautioned that industry-specific jobs training will help in the medium term, but it is not a quick fix.
But there are other options to help unlock job creation, he added, if the government is willing to reverse some cuts to the civil service.
"We have some homegrown problems here that are impediments to development," he said. "The government has cut too deeply in some of the dirt ministries and in regulatory approvals."
The so-called dirt ministries – forestry, energy and mines – are the areas with the biggest potential for expanding exports and boosting job creation. However, as the province reined in spending in recent years, those were the areas that experienced some of the deepest cuts.
Those sectors will not be the only ones singled out, however. The government has also been looking at ways to lend a helping hand to boost international education, tourism and technology.
Mr. Finlayson said the government also needs to revitalize its work with first nations because the consultation process to allow resource development is creating costly delays.
"Part of what is holding back development is the sheer difficulty of getting stuff done," he said.