Hiring foreign workers not easy for small communities, companies, observers say

300 foreign workers work at Leclerc Foods
Leclerc Foods operates three Ontario facilities: Hawkesbury, pictured, Brockville and Cornwall. File photo

Securing foreign workers to help ease the labour shortage in Eastern Ontario is one challenge, keeping those workers in smaller communities is another, experts suggest.

“The manpower shortage was first felt in Quebec in our two first factories,” said Catherine Potvin, director of international talent management with Quebec-based Biscuits Leclerc Ltd. “Initially we tried to solve the worker shortage problem locally, but when we couldn’t, we decided to go abroad in 2018. This is not at all pandemic-related.”

Leclerc, a 117-year-old family-owned business, operates five factories in Canada – two in Quebec and three in Ontario, including one in Brockville that opened last year. So far, the company has hired nearly 300 foreign workers at its five factories over the past five years.  

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They’re not the only large employer that’s had to look beyond Canada’s borders to find qualified workers.

“We faced challenges in finding qualified candidates for various roles, which led us to consider hiring foreign workers to ensure we could continue to grow and maintain service levels for our customers,” said Cynthia Seguin, general manager at Alexandria Moulding Canada.

The idea that immigrants are part of the solution to the worker shortage isn’t new. The federal government’s temporary foreign worker program, launched in 1973, was designed to ease hiring for Canadian companies. It has since been updated and expanded several times to meet the needs of the country’s labour markets. Provinces also have programs, such as the Ontario immigrant nominee program and the Quebec skilled worker program. 

But while large companies like Leclerc and Alexandria Moulding have large HR departments with the capacity to navigate the immigration system, smaller employers are at a disadvantage, says Richard Webster, international education manager, community development with St. Lawrence College. That’s where colleges and universities can come into play, he explains.

“So there is this large international student demographic, a demographic that will continue to increase for a number of different reasons, and these individuals are here to study, so they’re getting a Canadian education and the vast majority want to stay after graduation and work in Canada,” said Webster.

The trick is encouraging and enabling foreign students to remain in rural Canada and integrate into the community, he said.

“We know anecdotally that the majority of international students relocate to larger cities.  So we want to support students to stay within our region. We need to connect them to the community and the cultural associations within their community that can ease their transition,” said Webster.

Most of these students are enrolled in two-year programs, he adds, because then they qualify for a post-graduate work program that allows them to work for up to three years, gain experience in Canada and work on their permanent resident application.

With approximately 621,000 international students enrolled in Canadian colleges and universities, it’s a significant potential workforce given the current acute worker shortage.

“The shortage, we think, is people retiring, families not as big as they used to be.  Leclerc is growing and we need more people but there are less people,” said Potvin.

“It goes way beyond Biscuits Leclerc, it’s the ever-evolving changes in your demographics,” said Michelle Pompili-O’Neil, international talent management adviser with Leclerc. “I’ve been recruiting now for several years, but changes in the population are everywhere and you sense it more in smaller towns where the population is often older.”

The shortage is being felt across a variety of skills, education levels and work experiences. “We have hired foreign workers for various general labour positions requiring diverse skill sets,” said Seguin.

“We recruit a variety of skill levels, from sanitation workers to operators to maintenance technicians to control technicians … we have business unit leaders or process leads. So the opportunities are available, but we can’t find the manpower,” said Pompili-O’Neil.

In most cases, foreign workers arrive on a temporary work permit with the hope of remaining in Canada.

“The foreign workers we’ve hired are currently on a two-year work permit and have chosen Canada as their preferred destination. Once their work permit is complete, they can apply for Canadian citizenship,” said Seguin.

Most companies hiring from outside the country have arranged for support systems to make newcomers feel welcome but challenges remain.

“We still have not perfected the system of receiving newcomers and recognizing their qualifications and helping them get into meaningful positions,” said Webster.

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