Bernard Avenue in downtown Kelowna. (File photo)

Central Okanagan economy grapples with labour shortage

Housing affordability keeping skilled labour away

Businesses across the Central Okanagan appear to be facing a similar issue, that of job vacancies leaving employers to wonder where all the pre-pandemic workers have gone.

The Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission (COEDC) can offer some insights into the current labour market climate, but there are no easy solutions in the present trend of economic uncertainty caused by national and global issues, rising interest rates and post-COVID supply chain delays.

Krista Mallory, manager of the COEDC, says the labour shortage trend is not unique to the Central Okanagan but there are some relevant regional factors influencing it.

Mallory cites how from January to June of this year there was a 52 per cent increase in job postings compared to the same period in 2021, a reflection of a local economy bursting out of the post-pandemic era, being the fastest-growing metropolitan area in Canada while in the midst of a labour pool shortfall.

“On top of that we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in Canada, so yes, we are growing faster than other regions across Canada but that exacerbates some the challenges we face locally,” she said.

That has been coupled in our region by a demographic shift in the population of people over age 65 seeing a 20 per cent increase over the last five years.

“That is comparable to the national rate shift in that category of 18.3 per cent as you are starting to see that global shift of baby boomers who are reaching retirement age, a trend that is likely to accelerate in the immediate next few years,” Mallory said.

“And, we are also experiencing across the board after the pandemic people re-evaluating their plans and opting to retire rather than keep on working.”

Mallory refers to what others are calling “the great resignation,” where besides people retiring, workers are changing jobs or actively looking for something new to do beyond what they are trained for, creating a tumultuous labour market.

“Another aspect on which there is no hard data at this point, that some professions are seeing previous employees being retrained and no longer in those fields. So we are seeing more jobs and fewer people qualified to fill many of them,” she said.

But there are some economic positives, Mallory cites, such as coupled with the 20 per cent growth of retired residents, there has also been a 12.6 per cent growth in 15-64-year-olds from 2016 to 2021, an important statistic because that means more job seekers are moving to the Central Okanagan.

“That is a lot because the average for that 15-64 group across B.C. is 5.1 per cent, and across Canada, it is 2.5 per cent. Professionals and families are relocating to our region. It is hard to place the reason for that on any one thing but it’s pretty clear that the word is out about Kelowna.”

Mallory said where the COEDC office in Kelowna would receive business or employment inquiries from largely Alberta and Lower Mainland residents or business investors, now those inquiries come from across Canada.

“One of the noticeable things in recent years is the number of people moving here from Toronto, something we were not seeing happen prior.”

She said marketing the Okanagan lifestyle along with the impact and career opportunities offered by the presence of UBC Okanagan and Okanagan College are driving a lot of growth in the region.

But again in tipping the scales of finding a happy medium, Mallory acknowledged, is the cost of living in the Okanagan, primarily housing prices, which hold people back from making a move here.

“Housing affordability is a massive challenge right now. Part of that comes with growth as employers are telling us that have good job vacancy candidates who opt to decline a job posting because of the challenge of housing affordability and availability.”

She said the tourism sector remains a big influencer of the regional economy dynamic, as does technology, agriculture, manufacturing, retail and service industry, and aerospace industry opportunities.

“The economic fundamentals for our region remain strong and the entrepreneurial spirit and resilience are still strong despite the fires, floods and the pandemic.”

READ MORE: U-Haul bullish on Okanagan economic growth

READ MORE: Robust economic outlook for Central Okanagan

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