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Yukon entrepreneurialism alive and well

People often call Whitehorse a government town, and complain that the old get-it-done pioneer spirit is fading away.

People often call Whitehorse a government town, and complain that the old get-it-done pioneer spirit is fading away. The government has commissioned various consultant reports over the years pointing out the challenges of high costs, scarce labour supply, dodgy Internet reliability and government red tape.

Despite all this, under the radar a surprising number of Yukoners are running their own businesses, as shown in a recent report by the Yukon Bureau of Statistics.

As of 2013, there were 3,527 businesses in the Yukon (legal ones, that is). This means around 10 per cent of Yukoners are either running their own businesses or managing one owned by an out-of-territory firm.

The biggest categories are construction and professional, technical or scientific services. Each category has almost 600 businesses or 17 per cent of Yukon firms. The next big categories are retail trade with eight per cent of Yukon businesses, administrative services with eight per cent and hotels and restaurants with six per cent.

Almost six in every 10 businesses are based in homes. That’s over 2,000 Yukoners running businesses out of their homes. People who don’t know the placer business may be surprised to learn that half of Yukon mining companies are run out of the home.

Over 400 Yukoners are running professional, scientific or technical businesses out of their homes. As well as having lots of grizzlies and moose, the Yukon also seems to be rich in consultants.

The 2,000 home-based businesses employ an average of 1.75 people, meaning that many have an employee or two in addition to the owner.

The Yukon Statistics Bureau report shatters more than one myth about the Yukon. Unlike 1898, only 93 Yukoners are reported working in “drinking places.” That’s less than work in RV parks and campsites. Of course, over 1,000 Yukoners work in hotels, which often do not do a bad job competing with “drinking places.”

The size of the hotel workforce underlines the importance of tourism, business travel and itinerant government officials to our economy.

Another busted myth is that most people have full-time jobs. One-third of workers are part-time or casual.

Mining has one of the highest ratios of full-time work, with almost 70 per cent of miners clocking in full work weeks (that doesn’t count mine owners working in their own businesses).

Educational services, which includes training and tutoring, is at the other end of the spectrum. Less than 10 per cent of the workforce is employees with full-time jobs, while over 60 per cent are owners working in their own outfits. Hotels and restaurants have about 50 per cent full-time employees.

As befits Whitehorse’s traditional position as the entrepot of the upper Yukon, 77 per cent of businesses reporting a Yukon office address are based in the capital. However, this still means that over 700 businesses are headquartered in other Yukon communities. Another 369 businesses are headquartered Outside, mostly in B.C. and Alberta.

The growing diversity of the Yukon’s entrepreneurs is also impressive, considering that in the gold rush photos most businesspeople appeared to be white men. Over one-third of sole proprietors are women, and over 40 per cent of business partners.

Over 200 citizens of Yukon First Nations are sole proprietors or partners in a business. The largest number of these are Champagne and Aishihik citizens, followed closely by Trondek Hwechin and Teslin Tlingit Council members. A few dozen businesses are also formally owned by First Nations or their development corporations.

Over 10 per cent of Yukon business export to Outside clients. Over 100 of the professional, scientific and technical services firms export, reinforcing the point made last year by Stefan Voswinkel in his report on the growing number of knowledge industry workers in the Yukon. More than one quarter of arts and culture businesses also export, as well as significant numbers from industries one would expect such as mining, agriculture and trapping.

Small business is hard work and can be risky. While over 30 of Yukon home-based businesses report more than $1 million in annual revenue, half generate less than $50,000. These may be recent start-ups, side occupations or part-time efforts by a parent staying at home with the kids. Small businesses have bad years, and don’t have generous government pension plans and health-care benefits.

Nonetheless, the Yukon’s entrepreneurs - both big and small - collectively make up a huge part of our economy. They represent important opportunities for talented and ambitious people who don’t fit into the typical boxes that government and corporate human resources departments use when screening resumes.

We should probably do more to celebrate the Yukon’s small business community. I was inspired when Karlo Krauzig of Yukon Shine Distillery went on national television to tout his product on Dragon’s Den. We should probably also do more to inspire the next generation of Yukon entrepreneurs. We have fantastic outdoor education programs in our high schools, plus lots of programs for elite athletes and talented musicians, but I’m not aware of a high-school entrepreneur club.

Of course, the kids who might start such a club are probably already in the Yukon Statistics Bureau report.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s “Yukonomist” show or Twitter @hallidaykeith