Traction is creating new opportunities in BC through its Small Town Initiative
Coos Bay, the Oregon Coast’s largest city, is not what most would consider large, with a population of just 16,000. While much of the coast is rocky and cliff-lined, Coos Bay is home to the Oregon Dunes and their unique ecology. Followers of the Bandit Tour will be familiar with Coos Bay, a regular stop for the Bandits on their annual road trip to San Francisco. Over the past five years, what the Bandits have seen in Coos Bay and other small communities along the coast is concerning. It’s also emblematic of what’s happening in rural communities across North America: small towns are trying to adapt to the modern economy.
The issue is a personal one for CEO Greg Malpass, having grown up in the 10,000 strong city of Nelson, BC. Small towns in BC, like Coos Bay, have heavily relied on the resource market to stimulate their economies. “Coos Bay is a microcosm of what BC is,” says Greg. “An environment that draws the majority of its revenue from extraction. We’ve invested a lot in education but we’re not bringing jobs to people; we’re expecting people to leave their homes to find jobs.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than in BC’s forestry industry. In fact, 40% of BC’s regional economies are dependent on forestry, with more than 145,000 British Columbians employed by the forest products cluster. BC forests have been hit hard in recent years by the pine beetle infestation, and BC’s wildfire seasons are becoming progressively worse due to climate change (there were twice as many fires in 2017 as in 1970), leading to smaller areas of harvestable forest. Other extraction industries aren’t exactly booming either. Between 2016 and 2017, 1,935 jobs were created in mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction, but the overall trend has been downward since 2013 (from 18,920 to 17,935).
The Brain Drain
In concert with the evolution of BC’s physical topography in the 21st century, rural towns are losing inhabitants to bigger cities. Between 1951 and 2016, BC’s urban population grew from 68% of the total population to 86%. Riding this wave of urbanization, BC’s tech sector experienced massive growth in 2017, breaking a record with more than 100,000 individuals employed and employment growth of 2.9% (compared to 2.5% for BC overall). There’s jobs to be had, they just aren’t where they used to be.
Greg has first-hand experience of the strong forces pulling talent from rural areas. After graduating from Simon Fraser University, there seemed to be few opportunities in Nelson that aligned with Greg’s career goals and interests: primarily sales, marketing and tech. He moved first to Toronto, then back to Burnaby where he founded Traction. Though he still has deep roots in Nelson, he wouldn’t have had these opportunities had he chosen to return home after graduating.
Born in the tiny town of Sandon, Traction Developer Catherine Pellowski-Wright felt she had no choice but to look for work in the city. “This problem has been getting progressively worse for decades,” says Catherine. “The opportunities for good employment in small towns are often quite limited. A single company might employ half the town — a precarious situation at best. As a teen growing up in a small town area, I didn’t see any local opportunities. I figured that if I didn’t leave I would be working in boring minimum wage jobs forever. That wasn’t a future I was interested in.”
Adapting to New Economies
Nelson was founded due to its proximity to gold and silver resources before shifting to logging, and most recently, to marijuana production. The quirky, bohemian culture of Nelson is attractive for residents and tourists alike. With “a music academy, two video stores, three record shops, a charcuterie owned by actual French people” and a rich and unconventional anti-war history, Nelson has a lot to offer individuals looking to build a home and a community — if they can find work.
The Nelson community has taken a lot of steps to generate new economic opportunities. They’ve implemented a broadband fibre infrastructure to make telecommuting a realistic and attractive option. They also have several strong organizations that are supporting education and training for today’s jobs, including: Selkirk College, the Nelson Tech Club and the Nelson Civic Theatre Society. Regionally, the Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) and Kootenay Association of Science and Technology (KAST) provide significant programming to help the region capitalize on the shifting economy.
Bringing Work to People
To help stem the urbanization of talent and help bring rural Tractionites home, Traction is opening up a new office in Nelson. The benefits for Tractionites who want to move to Nelson are manifold: lower housing costs, a vibrant community and a short commute. In fact, not only are Nelson-born Tractionites eager to return, but prospective hires are showing interest in Traction because they want the opportunity to work in their hometown.
With an abundance of centrally located space for lease or purchase in Nelson, there is ample opportunity for other businesses to follow Traction’s footsteps. By spreading Traction throughout the province, Greg hopes to decentralize the economic growth stimulated by tech so that the entire province, not just urban dwellers, can thrive in the modern economy.
“I want Traction to be a meaningful catalyst for the province and the Canadian economy in the path of change,” says Greg. “We need to transition to an economy based on human resources rather than natural resources. Traction is looking to make a dent that’s going to attract other forward thinking leaders to help knock down the walls preventing people from working where they want to live. We’re small but we can inspire our large clients to do this. We can inspire other companies and other leaders; any organization that sees tech as a means to increase capacity in their output should be considering this.”
One of Traction’s core values is to build community, and this initiative will empower employees to help bolster culturally rich places like Nelson and establish a healthy home for their families. This initiative doesn’t just stop with Nelson, however. Traction is already looking at additional locations with an emphasis on quality of life and emotional connections between geographies and the people that work at Traction. If home is where the heart is, why shouldn’t work be there too?