Naomi Yamamoto, recently appointed Minister of State for Small Businesses, came to Houston and met with over 30 Houston business owners, presenting her plans and asking about ways the provincial government can help small businesses.
Yamamoto has 22 years of experience as a small business owner and was 1997 chair of B.C. Chamber of Commerce, so she feels she can hit the ground running, she said.
But her experience doesn’t help her know what it’s like to be a small business owner outside of the Lower Mainland, she said.
Visiting Houston and other towns in the North, Yamamoto says she is working to develop a small business accord, similar to a bill of rights for small businesses, to help improve government services and help small businesses by reducing red tape and getting rid of unnecessary regulation requirements.
B.C. leads the country in job creation in the last year, with 57,000 more people working in B.C. than there were 12 months ago, said Yamamoto.
B.C. also has the highest number of small businesses per capita, four of five started by women and many from their homes, she added.
But the provincial government wants to hear suggestions about ways they can help and make things easier for small businesses, said Yamamoto.
More than anything, small businesses want big businesses to succeed, because when a big business does well, small businesses do as well, she said.
Houston Mayor Bill Holmberg agreed.
“The trick is getting big businesses to come,” he said, adding that one of the biggest problems is a skilled labour shortage – something Yamamoto says is quite the opposite in the Lower Mainland, showing a labour distribution problem in B.C.
But as previous minister of advanced education, Yamamoto says that the skilled labour shortage has been recognized and investments made in skills training.
Over a million dollars has recently been invested in capital upgrades for the Northwest Community College, Northern Lights, the College of New Caledonia and University of Northern B.C. and $76 million was invested into skills training programs, the majority going to the college system, said Yamamoto.
But Tony Mondia, the Business and Loans Analyst with Nadina Community Futures, expressed concerns about NWCC decisions to withdraw funding from Houston, asking how much the provincial government could influence that.
Yamamoto assured him that there have been no funding cuts to the college, but they are redirecting funds to fit with the labour market, she said, adding that the provincial government does have influence over the college system and concerns about college decisions can be brought to MLA John Rustad or the minister of advanced education.
“But it’s not just putting more money into the programs,” Yamamoto said, noting that 35 per cent of the programs in Fort St. John, Dawson Creek and Prince George have empty seats, and suggesting a system like in Fort St. John, where kids get dual-credit opportunities where they can start training in high school.
Brenda Anderson, Financial Officer of the Village of Granisle, suggested the problem is with apprentices finding placement and a need for a bigger tax break for small businesses to take on apprentices, because they often can’t afford taking on apprentices who usually cost a business money.
It’s taking too long for people to get apprenticeships and get on the floor, said Anderson.
Yamamoto says she thinks the apprentice program needs to change.
“In my opinion, we should front-end load that training so that the apprentices get that training right up front, not all of it but a lot of it, so that when they actually hit the floor they are more valuable to their employees,” said Yamamoto.
Mayor Bill Holmberg disagreed, saying that most people going into trades are interested in it and have the ideas and only need basic and hands-on training, adding that the problem is that nothing was done for ten years and now the program is just behind.
But B.C. has doubled the number of apprentices since 2006, said Yamamoto.
Houston Finning has six apprentices now, Mayor Holmberg added.
Tony Reitsma, owner/manager of Houston’s Home Hardware, suggested a need for student loan and loan forgiveness programs for the north, and Yamamoto said that though there are such programs already, there are none for trades.
Most people going into trades don’t have student loans because they usually have a job and a car and aren’t eligible, said Yamamoto.
“But that is a big problem,” she said, adding that when she was minister of advanced education, she was working on that and they could probably figure out a way to change things.
Yamamoto is eager to hear more suggestions about ways the provincial government can help small businesses in the north. Ideas can be posted through the small business accord link on bcjobsplan.ca.