Attracting workers to B.C. and encouraging those outside the workforce to participate is what keeps B.C. jobs minister Ravi Kahlon "up at night."
Kahlon and Vernon-Monashee MLA Harwinder Sandhu were the guests of a Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce virtual town hall Wednesday afternoon.
"The last few years have been extremely challenging," Kahlon said.
"Not just the pandemic ... heat domes, fires, floods, and now a war."
The Delta-North MLA said all these things have affected the B.C. economy, but what really causes him to lose sleep is the anticipated one million job openings over the next decade in British Columbia and who will fill them.
He said the NDP's Stronger BC economic plan is encouraging "inclusive, clean growth" that is mindful of both the climate and economy.
Kahlon said it is impossible to separate economic and social initiatives and that the two are "very intertwined."
Encouraging those who are not working to re-enter the workforce will be a challenge for years to come, he said.
"Normally, there are more people than jobs. Now, there are more jobs than people."
He touted investments in childcare to lower costs for parents so more can return to work.
On the skills training front, he said new thinking is needed, such as "micro-credentialling," in which workers take short courses to enter the workforce more quickly via "working partnerships on the job."
Immigration is also a key and provides more "social cohesion" than temporary foreign workers, whom Kahlon sees as a "short-term solution" to the labour crunch.
He said B.C. has seen its largest net migration in decades, despite the pandemic, but more workers are needed.
"We want to give people opportunities to come here and set up roots here," he said.
Kahlon said the employment pressure is being felt in all sectors.
"More and more people are realizing that working remotely is possible," and that can be used to attract people from big cities to the attractive lifestyle of places like Vernon, Kelowna, Kamloops or Prince George.
Kahlon said B.C.'s workforce is currently at 104 per cent of pre-pandemic numbers, yet he still hears from employers crying for workers.
Asked by the chamber about increased costs for employers, Kahlon said: "If we want to attract workers, we have to offer wages workers think they can come into the market and survive on."
He said labour is mobile, and "we need to create an environment where people want to come here."
Asked about the street-entrenched population and enforcement versus treatment, Sandhu said "people deserve to feel safe in their community."
She said housing is a first step to address problems and touted the 660 affordable or supportive units approved or already built in Vernon.
Services have been expanded at Vernon's downtown substance use clinic, and Sandhu said people "need routines and dignity" along with the services they require.
Kahlon added: "The same conversations are happening in every jurisdiction" across North America.
Making the cost of housing more attainable "is the million-dollar question" in every community, he said.