Job plan does little for today’s unemployed

Premier Christy Clark’s job plan, despite all the flying around the province and flashy announcements, is a bit of a letdown.

Premier Christy Clark’s job plan, despite all the flying around the province and flashy announcements, is a bit of a letdown.

There are some good measures. It’s worth trying to attract more foreign students, creating teaching jobs and bringing economic activity. Speeding up approvals for mines and logging and other activities, without compromising environmental standards, would be helpful. So would the promised agreements with First Nations to bring greater certainty for potential resource developments. And maybe all the new panels and committees and agencies will help bring economic activity.

But based on the advance hype, the more than 200,000 unemployed people looking for work probably expected more. After all, Jobs Minister Pat Bell promised a “seismic” impact from the strategy back in May. That suggested big changes and a lot more opportunities.

Instead, Clark delivered a package of promises that, for the most part, won’t result in increased employment for several years. There were promises of funding for infrastructure related to ports in the Lower Mainland and Prince Rupert, so, assuming speedy progress, there will be some construction jobs in the near term.

Most measures won’t produce significant results for years. Clark set a goal of eight new mines in operation by 2015, for example. That would bring many good jobs — but not now.

And the jobs plan is highly dependent on global economic recovery. Government can make B.C. a more appealing jurisdiction for mining companies committed to increasing production, for example. But they will only be interested if commodity prices are strong enough to encourage investment.

That’s the reality of the B.C. economy. We remain highly resource-dependent. Demand for minerals, logs and lumber and energy in other countries is required to fuel growth.

But it’s surprising, given the extent of joblessness in B.C. right now, that the plan did not include some short-term measures that are within the province’s control.

The federal-provincial stimulus program, now completed, offers one model. The infrastructure projects — with a few exceptions — were needed long-term investments in communities. Governments moved them up to provide jobs when they were needed, accepting the additional interest costs and earlier increase in the debt.

Jobs are still needed, and communities have a list of worthy projects. Clark could have announced a stimulus fund.

Or the government could rethink its commitment to make balancing the budget by 2013-14 it’s main priority.

Returning to a balanced budget as the economy improves should be a goal. But clinging to an arbitrary date could be bad policy. The federal government, for example, has given itself an extra year to return to eliminate its deficit.

Delaying the return to balanced budgets would give the government the ability to consider spending aimed at easing the impact of unemployment in the near term. Immediate measures could be taken to protect and increase employment — a subsidy for B.C. Ferries to allow a tourism promotion, for example. The government could protect families from the impact of prolonged job losses by funding training for people whose Employment Insurance has run out, or programs to fund needed community projects.

In fact, the fixation on the deficit could increase unemployment in B.C. Given the defeat of the HST and the slumping economy, the government is faced with making deeper spending cuts to meet its deficit targets, Finance Minister Kevin Falcon says. Those cuts will inevitably mean job losses at a time when prospects for new work are slim, and likely mean a reduction in community services when they are most needed.

A long-term focus is certainly valuable. But for many families, the impact of joblessness — or the threat of joblessness — is immediate, and dire. And when they can’t spend, their communities suffer. Clark’s jobs plan has many commendable features. But for those seeking work today, it has little to offer.

Footnote: The plan does builds heavily on initiatives and directions set by Gordon Campbell during his time in government, particularly the focus on trade with Asia and improved transportation. But in setting up new agencies, particularly with such fanfare, Clark was also suggesting the Campbell government came up short in many areas.