B.C. is fast orienting its economy toward Asia and its rising middle class, and local economies need to find ways to take advantage, says the provincial jobs minister.
Pat Bell, the minister of jobs, tourism and innovation, gave a rundown of the B.C. jobs plan during a West Shore Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting on Thursday.
Key to the strategy is establishing new markets in China and India for forest product and energy resource exports, and technical know-how. In parallel, the province is working on strategies to attract more foreign investment, particularly from Asia.
“Ten years ago economists though China’s economy would surpass the U.S. in 2050. Now they predict … 2016 or more likely 2019, only seven years from now,” said Bell, MLA for Prince George-Mackenzie.
“We’re basing decisions on the U.S. (economy) being flat. If we’re were wrong, that’s OK, the U.S. is a strategic partner. If we’re right, we’ll capitalize on our (Asian) partners.”
Bell, who has been on eight trips and trade missions to China, said B.C.’s forestry sector in particular has exploded in Asia. The province has 60 people on the ground in China working on nothing but selling B.C. lumber.
“That’s a $34 million investment over five years now seeing over $1 billion return per year. That’s $200 million in revenue for the (government),” Bell said. “Forestry and energy are key drivers where B.C. has advantage over the competition.”
The government is also creating a systematic regime to connect foreign investors with B.C. companies and industries, which until now, Bell admits, has been somewhat ad hoc. “I call it the eHarmony for investment,” he joked. “We want to market assets that match interests of investors.”
Closer to home, Bell said the Capital Region and West Shore needs to take advantage of opportunities surrounding tourism and international students, with an eye on Asia.
Royal Roads University in particular is actively trying to ramp up the number of international students studying on its Colwood-based campus, and living in the community.
“B.C. now has 94,000 international students with $1.25 billion in economic value,” Bell said. “There is no better place to look than Royal Roads. It’s a big economic driver for this area.”
He noted the subtle and indirect payoff of hosting foreign students, many who go on to become successful business executives or political leaders in their home countries. With strong connections to B.C., many return and invest.
“There is direct value when students come here, but the power of international students extends to future investment,” Bell said. “Those corporate executives think about those times in their lives in post secondary.”
Bell noted the extension of the Victoria airport runway is critical to allow direct flights from China and Japan, and for the tourism sector in general to become more “Asia friendly.”
“We need to focus on things we do well. I think south Vancouver Island and the opportunities with tourism are enormous,” he said. “We need to be more Asia-friendly. I don’t see signs in Mandarin, except in Chinatown.”
Also key to driving the local economy is sharing in the $8 billion Seaspan contract to build non-combat ships for the navy. Bell said vying for the “second place” contract, rather than the $25 billion combat ship job, will create a revived and long-term shipbuilding industry on the West Coast.
“The $8 billion will lead to further shipbuilding. It positions Seaspan for that growth,” he said. “Second place is not that bad … it is best suited for B.C. and a key economic driver. It’s very strategic, very positive.”
Bell committed to working with the West Shore Chamber of Commerce to help develop a “jobs innovation centre” in tandem with Royal Roads University.
The centre would analyze conditions and policies in Langford that led to its low unemployment rate, about 3.1 per cent according to city staff, and rapid economic growth.
“We want to identify best practices of why there are so many jobs and why unemployment is so low,” said chamber CEO Dan Spinner. “There are a lot of small business jobs out here and it has to do with being business friendly, but not to the exclusion of social responsibility or high quality of life.”