EOBJ Op-Ed: Innovation needed to attract talent in Eastern Ontario

Editor's Note

Ask business owners these days about what’s troubling them and you’re almost certain to get the same response: the talent shortage.

The cover story of this issue of EOBJ provides ample evidence of that. Identifying, recruiting and retaining talent is a burning issue, but it’s not a new one. The challenge was here long before the pandemic arrived. What’s changed is the sense of urgency — maybe even desperation — for attracting talent. Business owners are able, in this environment, to draw a direct correlation between unfilled jobs, revenues and profits.

If Ottawa’s business leaders thought they had it bad, consider the plight of businesses in more outlying communities. From almost every perspective, businesses in communities such as Almonte, Iroquois and Renfrew are dealing with more complex challenges.

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Demographics (fewer young people), geography (more remote and less likely to attract immigrants), a dearth of new housing (small towns are less likely to attract major subdivisions) and transportation (little to no public transit) are all mixed in a giant human resource cauldron that’s bubbling over.

Fear not, not all is lost. Eastern Ontario has its opportunities.

First, there are lifestyle advantages: a slower pace of life, more personal connections with neighbours, clean air and wide open spaces. All of this is alluring to young families and retirees alike.

The next opportunity is thanks to the almost ubiquitous high-speed internet access that comes from new low Earth orbit satellites, such as Elon Musk’s Starlink and, hopefully soon, Telesat’s Lightspeed. Simply put, unlimited high-speed internet is a game-changer for outlying communities.

It’s comparable to the electrification of rural Ontario in the 1900s. High-speed internet allows for remote work, but also for companies to consider new headquarters outside of urban centres.

The final opportunity is immigration. An acute labour shortage is having a direct impact on wage levels. As wages rise in industries ranging from manufacturing to service, this becomes a powerful economic incentive to seek new immigrants. The recent federal budget raised the goal for annual immigration to 450,000 by 2024.

While the HR situation is desperate, it’s not insurmountable.

Here’s the bottom line. For all the bellyaching about the talent shortage — albeit much of it justified — business owners need to get serious about how HR fits into their corporate strategy and what innovation they can bring to recruitment and retention.

Need ideas? Offer forgivable loans to purchase new homes for employees who reach retention goals. Join with post- secondary institutions to create training programs and directly access graduating students. Use new ride-sharing technology to help rural employees commute. Partner with economic development officials to welcome new immigrants. Invest in art projects and festivals to make small communities even more attractive. Entice seniors to return to work on a part-time basis to supplement retirement savings.

Business owners would be wise to embrace more sophisticated HR strategies and get innovative to solve their people problems.

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