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COLUMN: Boom times can be a mixed bag for business

I t's said that a rising tide floats all boats. Over the next two decades, it appears British Columbia will be looking to the resource sector and heavy industry to bring that tide in.

It's said that a rising tide floats all boats. Over the next two decades, it appears British Columbia will be looking to the resource sector and heavy industry to bring that tide in. But it's important the littlest vessels aren't swamped in the process.

The narrative "as goes mining/shipbuilding/forestry, so goes B.C." is an easy one for politicians. The reality is more complex: For small business owners, a booming economy can be a mixed bag.

Conventional wisdom says the more people are fully employed, the more they're spending, and the benefits spin off to commercial operations large and small alike. But there are drawbacks: Small business owners also struggle to recruit and retain a stable workforce as their employees are poached by larger operators able to offer higher wages.

Past a certain point, there is little they can do to hang on to staff. Until and unless we're prepared to pay much more for our coffee, bagels, dry cleaning and other basic goods and services, wage matching isn't in the cards.

Competition arises when a shortage of skilled labour exists. So leaders are right to think today about what we'll need in 20 years. But what about shortages of more entry level employees? In 2006, during the last big labour shortage, 65% of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business' B.C. members surveyed told us they hired staff even though those workers didn't meet requirements for the job.

Small business owners know that employees new to the workforce because they're young, new to the country or overcoming other life challenges require their own kind unique, intensive training only the boss can provide.

I will never forget the tire store owner who told me of his difficulty getting a new hire - a young man in his first job - to show up to work on time, show up every day and show up dressed for work. These are critical work skills that don't exactly figure prominently in ambitious jobs plans or sweeping higher-education strategies.

What entrepreneurs will need to address this challenge is flexibility on the shop floor and recognition of the time they invest in their staff. One idea that may help: the creation of a so-called "BC Training Bonus."

It could be a one-time amount paid directly by government to an employee at the end of a training period. An employer would certify completion for a worker who has mastered three to five basic or intermediate skills after six months. The skills could be agreed upon by the employer and her trainee. The employer gets the benefit of better trained staff; the employee gets the benefit of sticking around.

When jobs can't be filled by an existing labour pool, small business owners also need to be able to draw on workers from around the world - fast. They'll require provincial leadership, working with the federal government to ensure immigration and foreign worker programs are nimble, workable and adequate for the needs of employers.

Expanding opportunities to transition temporary workers to permanent immigrants, such as the Provincial Immigrant Nominee Program and the Canadian Experience Class, and changing National Occupation Codes, used in both the permanent and temporary streams, to recognize a broader range of existing skilled positions, are good places to start.

Small business also needs a sustainable tax environment to thrive. The last two decades have seen municipal property taxation trending ever upwards. A recent survey of CFIB's 10,000 members in B.C. saw the majority point to their local property taxes - on average 300% what residential owners pay - as the most harmful taxes they'll pay.

It's not that small business owners aren't prepared to pay their fair share. But local government must also be fair in how they asses commercial property tax rates - and continually ask themselves whether those tax revenues are being spent in the best, most efficient way possible.

Ultimately, a long-term vision for B.C.'s economic and social prosperity can't depend on trickle-down benefits from big resource and heavy industry investment alone. It will take a concerted effort by small business, government and big business to sail smoothly together.

Shachi Kurl is director of provincial affairs, BC & Yukon, with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.