Fraser Blyth

The under-employment blues

Lots of university-educated people have moved to Revelstoke in recent years for the lifestyle. How do they go about finding work in their field and is there any way they can be helped along to stay?

Lots of university-educated people have moved to Revelstoke in recent years for the lifestyle. How do they go about finding work in their field and is there any way they can be helped along to stay?

When Fraser Blyth moved to Revelstoke in September of 2008 he had a plan. He knew the city was looking to hire a director of planning and once that was done, they would be hiring an assistant planner.  “I thought I’d be the only planner in town and be a shoe in,” he told me over coffee.

Blyth has a Masters in Urban Planning and said he always envisioned himself living a mountain town. Shortly after coming, his friend joined him and they started up a consultant company together, Endemic Mountain Design, and worked on several projects together. When the city job came open, his friend was hired for the post.

With the partnership over (he holds no ill will and the two remain friends), Blyth started up Selkirk Planning & Design but he admitted work has been hard to come by, with mostly small jobs coming his way. “You get experience but it’s not enough work to sustain you,” he said. “When you have student loans and rent and groceries to buy, you need a lot of those smaller jobs.”

Making matters worse, the economic slowdown has meant fewer jobs and he has to compete with much bigger firms for the ones that do come up. To make ends meet, he works part-time as a cook at the Last Drop, sometimes working double-shifts consulting during the day and in the kitchen at night.

Blyth’s situation is all too common in Revelstoke. According to the recent Youth Action Plan, 70 per cent of respondents with a post-secondary have been in Revelstoke for less than five years. Thirty-five per cent of these people believe they are either working not enough or in jobs below their skill levels. The main reason they would leave Revelstoke is lack of career opportunities and cost of living.

***

The recent influx of university-educated youth to Revelstoke is largely due to lifestyle. Of the people interviewed for this story, all indicated they came for the small town, mountain life. They also indicated a strong desire to stay in Revelstoke long-term. So, what can be done to keep them around?

“It’s an issue that a lot of rural and small towns struggle with,” said Sean Markey, an associate professor with the Centre for Sustainable Community Development at Simon Fraser University. “People and money can locate anywhere these days. Towns have to ask themselves why they would locate in their town.”

He identified three areas a town could focus on to help people stay and prosper. The first is to provide a high-quality of life for its residents. The second is to have a strong economic development team that works to support small businesses and can be responsive to entrepreneurs. The third was to involve youth in town planning and other development activities so they feel a sense of belonging to the community.

Mike Stolte is the executive director of the Nelson-based Centre for Innovative and Entrpreneurial Leadership and author of the publication Beyond Economic Survival – 97 Ways Small Communities Can Thrive – A Guide to Community Vitality. He said creating an entrepreneurial culture is the key to maintaining young professionals.

“For the most part it’s not looking for someone to come in from the outside,” he told me. “It’s creating that culture and once you have that entrepreneurial vibe it tends to attract other entrepreneurial people.”

He said creating networking opportunities as a way of connecting businesses and mentoring start-ups.

He cited two Nelson examples on this. The first was the web development studio The Seed, which has brought together nine people who work in various web media related fields. The second is a peer mentoring program that brings together non-competing businesses monthly so they can discuss issues they are having and come up with solutions. “The natural entrepreneurs will come in,” Stolte said. “They may create a two-person business that will grow to five, that will grow to ten. There’s a kind of natural growth.”

***

In Revelstoke, J.J. Vinet is taking the entrepreneurial route. He studied architecture in university but before embarking on his masters degree, he decided to move to Revelstoke and work as a ski patroller. He got hired by the ski hill for the 2008-09 ski season and moved to town, only to find himself let go before he even started – a victim of down-sizing.

Despite the set back, he got a job doing night security for the ski hill and volunteered as a ski patroller during the day. By the end of the ski season he was hired on part-time and the last two years he has been a full-time patroller.

He didn’t give up on architecture. After his first ski season he helped design someone’s dream house. He also gave advice to friends when they were talking about building or renovations.

“That’s when the wheel started rolling about starting my own business,” the 25-year-old said. “I could see a spot for this kind of business or market in Revelstoke. With the growth of the ski hill and people renovating homes in town and developing new spaces, that having an architectural experience in Revelstoke could exist.”

So he started J. Design Studio. So far work has been slow, with only three projects to his name but one is a high-profile business set to open soon on Mackenzie Avenue that he hopes will provide some good exposure. To make ends-meet, he is working full-time for BC Ferries this summer but his goal is to grow his business over the next few years.

“I can see myself over the next five years being a slow-growth business where I really build a character profile and a nice portfolio that will establish what my business is about,” he said. “From there, it will be a full-time, working business model.”

***

Sarah MacDougall is working two waitress jobs at the moment. She graduated with bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the Ontario College of Art & Design in 2008 but has struggled to make a go of it since then.

“Now I’m at the point where I’m doing some freelance work but its not enough to make a living,” she said as she showed me a poster she designed for an NCES event.

She moved to Revelstoke one year ago after spending time in Canmore an then Golden. She’s been developing roots here and feels a strong sense of community.

“It’s much more of a motivator for me to try to stay here but at the same time…” she said, trailing off, worried that her words might impact her current jobs.

She told me she’s looking to network with other graphic designers but one thing she noticed is there a lot of over-qualified people looking for work in this town. “Ideally I would love to do something creative,” she said. “Something where it feels like what I do makes a difference.”

***

It’s not realistic to expect everyone who wants to spend the rest of their life in Revelstoke will find a job in their field of expertise. If it was, then the town would be a lot bigger and wouldn’t have the same appeal it holds. I asked the people I spoke to if they considered moving to a bigger city.

“I think about it but not seriously,” said Fraser Blyth. “Despite having financial hardships I feel pretty lucky to live where I do, having biking and skiing and that lifestyle pretty close.”

J.J. Vinet said that if he stayed in Calgary, he would probably have his masters right now and be working at a big architecture firm.

“But I would still have to commute 1.5 hours to get out to the mountains… It’s a way of life and I’m not into the rat race.”

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