A $3-million B.C. government program designed to move unemployed workers in the south to jobs in the north has relocated just over 100 people to date – some as far "north" as Nanaimo, an island community west of Vancouver.
The program is designed to connect hard-to-employ workers with hard-to-fill construction jobs in northern communities. There were just three placements in September, 37 in October and 64 in November. Workers have been moved to communities from Prince Rupert to Houston, but the majority have gone to Fort St. John and Kelowna.
"I hope they are coming here prepared," said Lori Ackerman, mayor of Fort St. John, where the temperature was –22 on Wednesday. "The jobs are here. The only issue that would arise, [is] if they don't have a place to stay and proper clothing."
Ms. Ackerman was not told in advance that the "JobMatch" program has delivered 30 new workers to her community in recent weeks. Housing is tight and, without accommodation arranged in advance, newcomers getting off the bus in Fort St. John right now can expect to spend a couple of weeks in a homeless shelter.
Her community of 20,000 people is a great place to kick-start a career, Ms. Ackerman added, but she wants to see a plan to ensure that workers are arriving with the right skill sets, and that they are supported. "It's not an easy place to work if you are not good with the cold," she said.
To date, 20 of the 104 workers have not stuck with the job they were sent to do.
Jobs Minister Pat Bell said Wednesday it is too early to say if the program is a success.
"Typically, the individuals we are dealing with here are the most difficult to employ. So it's not disappointing. We knew going into this it would take significant resources to make it work," he said in an interview Wednesday. "Part of this program is making sure that they have housing arranged, that they have the clothes they need. Its very hands-on." He said there has not been co-ordination with local governments because "we don't want to stigmatize them, that's why we try t o keep it low-key."
He said he hopes to have 250 people placed by the spring.
Kelowna Mayor Walter Gray also was not aware that the program was delivering people to his city. "I'm happy that Kelowna is on the receiving end – it's good for me to hear the program is alive and well," he said in an interview. In his community, where the average age is eight years older than the Canadian average, there is a demographic void of workers between the ages of 20 and 30.
Although Kelowna has a reputation for a high cost of living, Mr. Gray said in fact there is is a healthy, 3-per-cent vacancy rate, and the bylaws have recently been changed to allow homeowners to rent secondary suites. "So these 31 people who came to Kelowna, came here because they could afford to live here," he said.
Carole James, the New Democratic Party's social development critic, said she welcomes the support for the chronically unemployed but questioned whether this program is the best way to target the issue.
"The concept isn't bad, but I am certain there are people in Fort St. John and Dawson Creek who could use the support to help them get work in their community," she said. "This government keeps rolling out these piecemeal programs, instead of a long-term plan. Let's look at where the shortages are, and where do we need the skills training."