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The cost of doing business has worsened for nearly nine in 10 B.C. businesses, survey finds

Talent trumps taxes, capital, red tape as the top issue for business owners, who are struggling with the cost of labour
Just over half of business owners in British Columbia (52 per cent) say their business is in “very good” or “good” shape, up 13 points since the previous Research Co. survey in 2021

Every year, the BC Chamber of Commerce conducts the Collective Perspective survey, providing a unique opportunity to review the needs and wants of business owners across the province.

With a robust sample size, the latest iteration of the poll – conducted in October 2022 – shows positive momentum on some questions.

Just over half of business owners in British Columbia (52 per cent) say their business is in “very good” or “good” shape, up 13 points since the previous survey in 2021. Another ray of light arrives in a question about the prospects of the business over the next three to five years, where favourable forecasts increased from 55 per cent in 2021 to 63 per cent in 2022.

More than two-thirds of business owners (68 per cent) believe the most important factor for the success of their business is the ability to recruit and retain talent. At this stage, all other challenges – including innovation, capital, red tape and taxes – are less significant.

There are aspects of business life that are keeping owners awake at night. There is near unanimity on a particular setback: The cost of doing business has become worse for 87 per cent of respondents. Two other issues where the feelings are overly negative are the cost of labour (76 per cent) and the availability of workers (70 per cent).

Business owners were asked what policies would be helpful for their business. Measures to reduce regulation and red tape topped the list and were cited by 75 per cent respondents (and by 79 per cent of businesses in the Lower Mainland/Southwest region).

Majorities also mention measures to create housing choices that are affordable for younger people (68 per cent), investments to strengthen the health-care system, including in mental health services (64 per cent), investments in public infrastructure (also 64 per cent), measures to create more affordable housing for low-income people (56 per cent) and investments in public transit (55 per cent).

Even after years of policies aimed at getting rid of archaic regulations, business owners continue to feel that more can be achieved. The positive perceptions of enhancements in health care, infrastructure and public transit are not a surprise. However, two of the six most important policies for business owners are related to housing and the regional differences are clear. Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands are particularly worried about homelessness (60 per cent), while in the Kootenays and Thompson-Okanagan, the concern is young people (75 per cent and 70 per cent respectively).

A separate matter that affects some business owners is the need for additional investments in the natural resources sector. While the provincial average for this measure being beneficial stands at 38 per cent, the numbers climb significantly in the northwest (63 per cent), the central (72 per cent) and the northeast (83 per cent) regions.

There is a particular topic where responses are lukewarm. About three in 10 business owners (29 per cent) acknowledge that they have made no real progress reducing emissions, and about two-in-five (39 per cent) do not expect to be pursuing opportunities to do so in the next few years.

These seemingly low numbers outline a dual challenge: Businesses will need to adapt at a quicker pace, but the milestones established by the federal and provincial governments have not been accompanied by a significant communications effort. The message these results send is not “we don’t care” but “we need to know where to start and what gradual success looks like.”

In late 2021, when satisfaction with how all levels of government were managing the pandemic in British Columbia was high, the business community was also remarkably content with the behaviour of elected officials. At the time, most business owners described their local government (80 per cent), the federal government (66 per cent) and the provincial government (63 per cent) as being “generally supportive” of business.

One year later, some of that goodwill has dissipated. The notion of local governments being “generally supportive” of business fell to 67 per cent. Double-digit drops are also observed for the federal and provincial governments (to 50 per cent and 48 per cent, respectively).

On the final question, more than three in four business owners (78 per cent) were “very confident” or “confident” in the future success of their business. While this result is down eight points from 2021, no region is home to a majority of business owners who expect things to be worse this year.

We will have a new opportunity to review the resiliency of B.C.’s business community later this year. At this point, the cost of doing business is the most prevalent problem and red tape is a sought-after solution. It will also be imperative to gauge if the political changes that took place in November – locally and provincially – lead to a rekindled relationship between governments and job creators. It is evident that something clicked in 2021 and went missing in 2022.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

The BC Chamber of Commerce 2022 Collective Perspective survey is designed to identify and understand the issues and challenges facing businesses across the province. The results cited on this column are based on an online survey conducted in October 2022 among 948 business owners in British Columbia.