Is government doing a good job in providing services to Canadian businesses? In October, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (which represents 60,000 small businesses) published Obstacles and Opportunities: The Importance of Small Business in Ontario, and asked for a “regulatory concierge service” to make it easier for small business to deal with the three levels of government. Editor Patrice Dutil caught up with Allan O’Dette, the President and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC), to discuss the state of affairs and what, in his view, could and should be done. O’Dette joined the OCC in 2012. Prior to joining the OCC, he worked for 25 years as an entrepreneur and a senior executive in the biopharmaceutical industry. He holds a BA from Trent University, and an MBA from the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto.
Q: What prompted you and the OCC to undertake this study?
A: Small businesses make up 98% of all businesses in Ontario. This makes up a very large portion of our 60,000 members. We recognize that the success of small businesses is vital not only to our chamber network, but also to the vibrancy of communities throughout the province. In addition to highlighting the contributions of small businesses to the Ontario economy, the report identifies the top barriers to small business success and presents a series of recommendations designed to overcome these barriers.
Q: How did you go about it?
A: In May 2016, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with local chambers of commerce and boards of trade throughout the province, launched a vigorous advocacy campaign entitled “Small Business Too Big to Ignore”. It was designed to highlight the contributions of small businesses to the Ontario economy and identify the top barriers to their success. Central to the campaign was a robust consultation process with subject matter experts: small business owners themselves. The report captures the feedback and recommendations proposed by them in this process. These findings are supported by OCC survey data and independent research.
Q: Are there particular priorities you’d like governments to tackle?
A: Throughout our consultations, small business owners identified the following as the top three obstacles to their success in Ontario: (1) Rising cost of doing business; (2) Skills mismatch causing job vacancy; and (3) The infrastructure gap. The report presents sixteen recommendations designed to address a series of specific obstacles relating to each of these priority areas. The recommendations made in this report will feature prominently in our work leading up to the 2018 provincial election.
Q: What do you think generally about the regulatory environment in Canada?
A: OCC research suggests that the cumulative burden of recent government announcements is contributing to a higher cost of doing business in the province. It is for this reason that the first priority area identified in the report is “Escalating Costs Crowd-Our Investment Opportunities”. One of the most common concerns of our members is that the existing regulatory framework is overly prescriptive and difficult to navigate.
Q: Tell me more about the “skills mismatch” your members identified.
A: This is a serious concern. We calculate that the skills mismatch in Ontario costs the province approximately $24.3 billion in foregone GDP and $3.7 billion in provincial tax revenues annually. More than half of Ontario’s small businesses think that Ontario is worse off when it comes to building a 21st century workforce as compared to just five years ago. Research suggests that there is a pronounced relationship between skills and productivity. For this reason, we recommend that government work to improve the labour market integration of key labour market entrants including newcomers and young people while strategically investing in training and academic programs to ensure that job seekers are well positioned to meet the skills requirements of employers.
Q: Can better government approaches to small business actually lead to higher exports?
A: Absolutely. The OCC is committed to working with the government to strategize opportunities to enhance the export profile of Ontario businesses. As the report suggests, investment in trade-enabling infrastructure is critical to achieving this objective.
Q: What’s your vision for this issue, say, in 2021?
A: We are committed to continuing to work alongside government to address the issues identified in this report in the interests of ensuring the future prosperity of small businesses in Ontario. As I said, the recommendations made in this report will be advocated until the next election campaign in the province in 2018. At that time, we will evaluate the political platforms of each party with a particular consideration as to how their campaign commitments align with the interests of small business owners. I expect that by 2021 we will have seen significant responses to the concerns of our members.