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Lack of skilled labour and housing were the big business issues of 2012
Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce CEO Steve McLellan
Published Wednesday, December 26, 2012 8:00AM CST
CTV Regina web journalist Ken Gousseau recently sat down with Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce CEO Steve McLellan to discuss how the past year went for the group and businesses in the province.
CTV News: How did the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce and businesses in the province fare in 2012?
Steve McLellan: I think the chamber of commerce had an exceptional year. We had many policy wins; we did a lot of good work in terms of our events and engaging our members into the policy process; so, the chamber had a very good year, thanks to our members. I think that the provincial business community also had a stellar year. We’ve had about a six or eight year run here of good luck and hard work and of, generally, very positive business results. So, it’s been good; 2012 will be one that we’ll chalk up as a success
CTV News: What are some of the accomplishments the chamber has made in the past year?
Steve McLellan: There’s lots of various areas, certainly. I’ll start with our events. We had great success in bringing our members together in terms of our ABEX Awards, that was the 29th annual awards, we had lots of folks out; some stellar winners. We had all of our other events – our conference, the political forum and the Make a Connection Reception. All were very well attended and well received by the members and the folks that were at it. So, events-wise, it was great. One of the roles of the chamber of commerce is to bring the business community together, physically into a room, and also, of course, together as it relates to issues. So, the other piece of our year was great success in terms of policy work – things like the results-based regulatory environment, which is now public policy within the Ministry of Environment and will become, over time, spread across government. That’s good news, and something that this chamber started as a discussion paper probably seven or eight years ago. We’ve seen success there. We’ve seen success on the labour front; we’ve seen success in terms of fiscal stability within the provincial government. It has always been a mandate of this organization to encourage the province to have balanced budgets. Premier Wall and his finance ministers have held true to that, and that’s a very successful thing for the chamber and for the people of the province. We’ve seen success in areas of student achievement; labour market strategic planning – a whole variety of things. So, it’s been a very good year policy-wise.
CTV News: What were some of the major issues for businesses in the province, as well as the chamber in 2012?
Steve McLellan: The first big issue was the lack of skilled workers. We have lots of people in the province that are underemployed or unemployed, but their skills don’t match the need that we have. So, it’s the lack of skilled workers for the jobs that we have available. So, we’ve worked hard on that with the provincial government and with our members. That’s Job 1, and we’re seeing some success there, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. The business community is continuing to grow and our pool of available workers within the Saskatchewan resident is not increasing to the extent that we need it to. So, more immigrants, more Canadians moving here and so on is the answer. The second thing is housing, and it varies across the province, of course, in terms of the housing availability and affordability. But that was an issue in many communities. I’ve heard this year from some of our larger employers who were bringing in 30 and 40 people at a time, and finding homes for them is a challenge. I’ve heard of some great successes, mind you, in the north, particularly in the Nipawin country, where they’ve found places for them. So, we’re seeing success, but housing is a challenge and, of course, skilled labour is clearly Job 1. And I think skilled labour is probably going to be our issue for the next decade.
CTV News: To what extent do you think the lingering labour shortage will limit Saskatchewan’s ability to continue growing at such a rapid pace?
Steve McLellan: With every storm cloud comes a silver lining. One of the things we’re looking at as the silver lining is – with the acceptance of the fact that we will never have enough workers with the way our province is growing, even with the great success we’ve had with immigration and aboriginal engagement and youth and retention and so on – people are getting more focused on productivity and innovation. That means you can get more done with the same amount of workers using new technology, new processes and taking that moment to figure out those pieces. That’s a huge, huge advantage for our province. We haven’t been as good at that as we could have been, but these next few years we’re going to focus on that dramatically.
CTV News: What more can the provincial and municipal governments do to improve the business climate in Saskatchewan?
Steve McLellan: A couple of things. First, always be conversant with the business community. If there’s a policy that will impact the business community, to make sure that they take the time to consult with the industries that are affected, not to make assumptions that they’ll know the answers. Ask the questions. It’s the issues of unintended consequences that we’re trying to keep the government from stepping into, if you will – for their sake, as well as ours. Good public policies are ones that have had a consultation period at the front end; the full range of consequences is understood and the players that are involved have a keen understanding of what’s coming down the pipe. That’s easier for the business community to adjust; it’s also easier, then, for the government to not have to put out fires for years as a policy that went bad. From a municipal perspective, there are a couple of things that I think they need to think about. One of them is the relationship with municipalities, urban and rural. There are some barriers there on the edges of some of our cities that are seen as “our turf” and “your turf,” and that’s causing challenges for expansion in the cities. It is in Regina, Swift Current and Yorkton. That has to end. This is one Saskatchewan and no matter which side of the municipal line you live on, the betterment of the community needs to be considered. So, I think the municipal governments need to look at that. I think, again, that a complete and honest conversation with the business community will get much better results. People may not agree always on the outcomes, but having the conversation at least shows the respect that we cared what you thought about it enough to have the conversation. And maybe, although we still had to do as much as we had originally thought may have to to cut a program or to put a new municipal program in place or new fees or whatever the case is, people will have at least been given the respect that we heard their perspectives and that’s how we move with a better program.
CTV News: The chamber criticized the Saskatchewan Party government for cutting the province’s film tax credit earlier this year. Why did you group speak so strongly against that move?
Steve McLellan: Well, for a couple of reasons. One was the principle in the sense of how they did the cut. We know there was no consultation with the industry. Good public policy should not go from a point of one day, saying here’s a grant program that will deliver the outcomes that we as a government are looking for in terms of a film employment tax credit; and here’s a soundstage; and here’s the training program at our universities. So, all kinds of signed and visible and financial support of the industry, and then turn on a dime on budget day and say, oh, by the way, that program is done. It’s a critical element to that industry’s sustainability. While we believe that that’s terrible public policy, and I think the government has essentially come to that conclusion, that was our biggest concern with them is don’t deliver public policy done without the consultation and without all of the intended and unintended consequences known. As an industry, it was not a large one, but we don’t draw a line in the sand on financial statements that says you have to be $10 million or $100 million or $1 billion before you’re important to us. You’re important to us when you’re a business in Saskatchewan and, as a chamber, we hold that very true. So, we were quite adamant that the process was flawed. It’s important to note that we had, over the course of from budget day forward, numerous meetings with ministers and staff of the ministry and other political leadership to say what’s going on with this? We got a range of different answers, which is why we undertook the research ourselves with SaskFilm. So, it was bad public policy and, I think, the wrong decision essentially to kick the legs out from under an industry that the day before had been celebrated. It made no sense. Does the government have the right to eliminate programs? Absolutely. But I would suggest they also have the responsibility to follow good public policy practices. In this case, we don’t think they did. They have in 95 per cent of other public policy decisions, which is what made this one stand out so dramatically.
CTV News: Do you think Saskatchewan’s film sector will ever fully recover from the elimination of the film tax credit?
Steve McLellan: I think the Saskatchewan film industry will reinvent itself. We will not see the kind of big-budget movies that we did see. We will not probably see the type of serious TV that we had here in the past, although they’re still working on both the industry renewal, as well as the programs that the government will have in place. But my expectation is that those days are essentially gone. What I do think we’ll start to see is more videos – more music videos, more interactive and digital videos, and the industry was heading that way anyway. This just expedited that process. But clearly, there’s a significant level of frustration and, quite frankly, personal hurt amongst the industry players because, well, they were tripped up.
CTV News: What do you think about Regina’s plan to build a new stadium and the potential impact on businesses in the city?
Steve McLellan: I think the fact is Regina needs a new stadium. I think it will bring, at the end of the day, an awful lot of people together under one roof, around one new facility, which is quite exciting. There’s still lots of road to go yet in terms of the final design, the final costing in terms of the budgets and things like that. Although the numbers are all out there, they haven’t got it quoted yet, and so, we’ll wait to see how that comes in. I’m not sure that the jury is fully in yet in terms of the location. But, again, from all the reports, essentially, the decision has been made as to where it will go and we’ll see the final results of that over time. But, the bottom line is the city needed a new stadium; a partnership has come together to get it built. That’s progress.
CTV News: Do your concerns around the location of the stadium have to do with economic spinoffs? The area that’s proposed right now doesn’t really have any businesses around it.
Steve McLellan: No. Nor is there easy road to build an entertainment district, if you will, around it. I understand the complexity of putting it onto the old CP Rail line along Dewdney there. I understand that that wasn’t physically, perhaps, going to work. But I would have hoped that they would have known that to begin with, and obviously things changed. But at the end of the day, again, for every door that closes, another door opens. So, I think it’s incumbent now upon the business community, as this process moves forward, to start to establish itself as a server of those people. Maybe Dewdney becomes more active as a restaurant/nightclub area. There used to be the old Paddock and the Red Ox steakhouse right on Dewdney and Lewvan. So, those businesspeople or businesspeople in the future could build up around it. It’s not there today, but it could happen.
CTV News: The cost of electricity is set to go up nearly five per cent in the province in the new year. What impact will that have on businesses, especially the smaller ones?
Steve McLellan: The irony is I think the impact will be more significant on the larger users of electricity – pulp mills in Meadow Lake and Evraz Steel here in Regina. A small business has the capacity to put in efficiency programs – turn the lights off, LED lights and things like that, and change if they have motors and so on in to go to high efficiency. The bigger expense is those people who have all that in place and still use a whack of power. Nobody like a price increase, but we all like the fact that we turn on a switch and the power’s there; we all like the fact that our province is growing – more businesses and more people are coming here, so we need more power. We were very close to SaskPower in terms of their consultation process and we understood that the price would have to go up because we need to make sure that we have that capacity – you turn a switch on and the power’s there. Other jurisdictions have not enjoyed the luxury of that. First-world countries don’t always have that luxury. We’ve had it; we want to keep it, and if you asked a businessperson whether they’d want to have intermittent power or a little bit more expensive power, they’ll take the little bit more expensive every time.
CTV News: What do you think lies ahead for the chamber and Saskatchewan businesses in 2013?
Steve McLellan: I think it’s going to be an interesting year in many ways. As I spoke to earlier, the issues around innovation and productivity are high on our agenda, and I think they’ll become that way for business. We’re getting to a point now where everybody believes the prosperity we’re enjoying today will be around for a long time. So, now, we’re encouraging our members to get ready for it; to get faster, more machined-up, if you will; more process-orientated to make sure that they’re ready to take this next leap that our businesses are in terms of growth or dealing with the shortages of human resources. I think 2013 is going to be an amazing year in Saskatchewan. We’ve got some big parties planned, which always puts everybody in a good mood, with the Grey Cup and the Junos and other things. It’s, I think, going to prove to be one of our best years ever.