Prince George businesses are increasingly happy with the city’s corporate climate and are experiencing record-breaking development, according to information gathered by the 2016 business outreach program.

Melissa Barcellos, manager of economic development for the City of Prince George, said that while hard data will not be available until the census is released, many local businesses reported that their employment base was increasing from outside the city.

“Direct feedback from the businesses is that they’re seeing applicants from across Canada,” Barcellos said.

“Based on analytics from Prince George’s job portal website, over 10% of the jobs were filled by people locating to Prince George from out of town.”

Last month, the city released the results of its third annual business outreach program, aimed at facilitating dialogue between businesses and the municipality. The program gave business people an opportunity to voice their concerns about running a company in the city, and the general economic state of Prince George. This year, the city conducted interviews with 65 local business owners and managers as part of the program.

“We’re taking all of this information and we’re putting it into our 2017 work plan,” said Barcellos. “Some of the work we’ll be doing is direct improvement in our department but a lot of it involves advocacy, keeping other organizations informed of what our businesses want and working with different levels of government.”

The city learned that the business community has changed its sentiment about Prince George’s business climate, with 85% saying that it was better than it was five years ago.

In 2014, 39% of respondents said that employee retention was a problem; however, in 2016 that proportion fell to only 6%. Prince George businesses have been able to pay higher wages and provide more attractive benefits packages, which was highlighted in the report as a key reason for the decrease.

Prince George business owners are more optimistic about finding and retaining employees than they were when the program started two years ago. Thirty-one per cent of businesses said that employment was increasing, up from 29% in 2014. Sixty-nine per cent of businesses expected their full time staff to increase over the next three years compared with 45% in 2014. Only 6% of businesses interviewed are expecting a decrease in full-time staff.

At the same time, 15% of business owners interviewed by the city reported that the number of people they employ had fallen. That proportion was only 8% in 2014.

“Being a northern city, a lot of people who live in Prince George work in Alberta, so we’ve seen a lot of people coming back to Prince George from Alberta for employment,” Barcellos said. “I think that’s one of contributing factors to the decrease in the employee retention and attraction problem.”

The city will take the survey results from the business outreach program and work it into their municipal economic development plan. Businesses’ responses to the first outreach program, which began in 2014, led to the creation of the Move Up Prince George website, a job search portal for the city that allows potential employees to connect with employers and learn about life in the northern B.C. community.

“We interviewed 150 businesses in our first year and their biggest concern was around their ability to attract and retain employees,” said Barcellos. “And that comment was what spurred the development of the Move Up Prince George website.”

With less concern about retaining employees, businesses are now focusing on the need to attract qualified workers who can fill the talent gap. According to the report, many of the business owners interviewed believed there was a mismatch between the available workforce and available jobs. Prince George businesses rated workforce quality as the lowest out of 10 metrics measuring the state of the local business climate including tax structure, workforce availability and technical training.

Prince George is working with local school districts and post-secondary institutions to ensure students are taught the skills needed in a changing economy. Barcellos highlighted the need for computer engineers in the ever-modernizing forestry sector.

“When you go into a lumber mill these days it looks more like someone is operating a spaceship rather than working in a lumber manufacturing facility,” she said. “The level of skill that is needed to operate our manufacturing facilities now is much different than it was 20 years ago.”

Prince George is also partnering with universities outside of the local community in order to boost the number of available trained workers and also encourage people to move to the city.

The outreach program also provides local businesses with the opportunity to make suggestions about how the city can improve the business climate. Many of the suggestions made by the businesses interviewed revolved around transportation and increasing access to different markets and suppliers. According to the outreach survey, many companies want to see more direct fights to domestic and international destinations as well as increased commercial utilization of the airport.

A number of suggestions were made about increasing the capacity of the highway system in both British Columbia and Alberta. According to the report, some companies in Prince George believe that it is cheaper and more convenient to work with suppliers in Vancouver than with those in Calgary and Edmonton, even though the relative distance to these cities is the same. Businesses wanted to see increased shipping capacity to Edmonton and Calgary in order to improve their access to Alberta suppliers and markets.

Businesses also highlighted concerns about the limitations northern B.C. highways put on shipping capacity in terms of weight, height and width. As well, businesses advocated for the expansion of the port in Prince Rupert and expanded rail transportation services.

“Our council and executive team at the city is very pro-development,” Barcellos said. “We’ve been getting really good feedback from developers about doing business with Prince George and we see them come back. They’ll have one investment and we’ll see them come back almost right away, which is a good indicator to us that we are welcoming to new businesses. Developers locally and our council want to keep that momentum going.”