Opinion: Childcare is infrastructure

BC Tech CEO Jill Tipping believes investments in childcare have the potential to unlock economic growth while increasing the diversity of the tech sector's talent pool.

In Canada, especially in BC, our thinking about the economy and the infrastructure needed to support it tends to be grounded in the 20th century.

Then, the goods economy was dominant. The flow of product went from raw materials to manufactured finished goods, distributed through global supply chains on a physical infrastructure of roads, rail and petroleum-fueled vehicles. People were primarily seen as cost or consumer. 

But that’s no longer the reality of our economy in Canada or in BC and it hasn’t been for some time. 

Have a guess at how much of our economy is goods and how much is services? 

Go on, it’s more fun if you guess. 

The answer: 75% of our GDP and 80% of our jobs are in the services economy. 

Surprising? It was to most people I spoke with in the course of preparing this piece—most assumed the goods economy was the same size or bigger than the services economy. That’s a reflection of what’s written about, what’s talked about, where our leaders focus, even the structure of government. 

The goods economy is still an important part of BC’s economy, of course, and ensuring it continues to thrive and remain resilient is why my organization has partnered with Surrey, Richmond and Langley (which have 70% of BC’s manufacturing capacity) to develop a supply chain resiliency program that will help manufacturing businesses understand emerging trends and adopt technology.

But the services economy is now the majority of our economy and we need to ensure we invest in the economic infrastructure to support it. What does it look like when we see people as an asset, not a cost? And what services and infrastructure would we put in place to realize the economic potential of people? 

For a start, it looks like childcare. 

A 2017 IMF study estimated that better targeting of subsidized childcare to working parents could increase Canada’s GDP by up to 4%. In a 2018 speech, the Governor of the Bank of Canada pointed to Quebec’s approach to affordable childcare as a model of how Canada could unlock the untapped potential of our labour force and drive economic growth. If there is a silver lining to COVID it might be that the pandemic is forcing us to act in bigger ways to respond to imperatives. 

I was one of many thrilled to see transformative investment in childcare announced in Canada’s recent federal budget.

Anita Huberman, CEO of Surrey Board of Trade, shares my viewpoint: “Affordability and accessibility to quality childcare are necessary for employees to be able to perform at peak productivity, confident in the knowledge that their children are cared for in a safe, learning environment. The return on investment in childcare results in a richer economic environment for businesses, families and communities in Canada.”

Nowhere is this more important than in the tech sector where the limited supply of labour is constraining growth and where increasing the diversity of our talent pool is an imperative. I talked to Kari LaMotte of Entrepreneurship@UBC who highlighted the particular challenge faced by early-stage founders in the university context: “They are often part of an age group where they are having children while simultaneously trying to build their company. If they don’t have reliable, affordable childcare while getting their companies off the ground, it stifles the innovation pipeline, preventing their participation in the innovation economy and future contributions more broadly.” 

James Raymond has personal experience of the cost of childcare in Vancouver. With two children under the age of 5, his childcare costs are a whopping $40,000 this year. As a senior research manager at the Vancouver Economic Commission, his interest in the issue is more than personal. “Investing in childcare is the single best piece of economic policy-making a society can make in my opinion,” he told me. “What is better to invest in than our children’s future?”

Economic infrastructure investment can’t and shouldn’t be limited to the goods economy. We need to invest in the economic infrastructure needed for the services economy. For the flow of ideas, developed in teams, distributed digitally on a virtual infrastructure of the internet and mobile phones. For the provision of personal services, delivered with care and attention, human to human.

Subsidized childcare for working families is a great start, but why stop there? Let’s reframe the conversation around immigration, education, elder-care, transit, housing, connectivity and building pathways for greater inclusion. This is the infrastructure of the services economy and it needs attention and priority as an economic issue.

Jill Tipping is the president and CEO of BC Tech.