Immigrants are part of the answer to the labour shortage puzzle in Eastern Ontario, officials agree

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With labour shortages in all sectors causing challenges across Eastern Ontario, one strategy that is gaining traction is attracting more immigrants to rural regions.

“The county is working with employers to promote job vacancies and working with organizations and agencies to help settle newcomers to our area and place them in jobs,” said David Wybou, business development officer with Renfrew County. “This includes participating in virtual career fairs with new Canadians currently living in urban centres and looking for new opportunities elsewhere, as well as people overseas who have recently been or are about to be granted work permits in Canada.”

Colleges like Algonquin are also recognizing the potential. 

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“One opportunity in Lanark and Renfrew counties is the growing international student enrollment at Algonquin College’s Perth and Pembroke campuses,” said Jamie Bramburger, manager of community and student affairs at the college’s Pembroke campus. “Many of these students are interested in settling in Canada when they complete their post-secondary education.” 

Foreign student enrollment has more than tripled in the past year as labour shortages around the world fuel more emphasis on education, Bramburger added.

In Cornwall, Walmart Logistics welcomed more than 200 new associates this fall. The new workers came from Montreal, Ottawa and the GTA, but many were also newcomers to Canada who had obtained their permanent residency status.

“As our business grows, so does our need to increase our team,” said Rene-Paul Gomis, regional manager, people — logistics with Walmart. “We continue to have employment opportunities at our Cornwall distribution hub and these new workers will certainly help us address the seasonal surge that always happens at this time of the year.

“The goal is to convince our new associates to stay and settle in Cornwall,” added Gomis. “Cornwall is a wonderful place to live and raise a family and the cost of living here is so much more affordable than large urban centres like Toronto.”

Also in Cornwall, Olymel recently welcomed a group of 11 workers from Mexico.

“As we take the initiative of welcoming new foreign workers, we thank them for choosing us and assisting Olymel through these tough times,” said Shelly Harding, human resources manager with Olymel Cornwall. “We also thank our employees at Olymel who supported, helped and welcomed the foreign workers with so much passion and appreciation.”

Olymel has steadily grown its workforce in Cornwall to meet rising demand for its products. It has stepped up its recruitment efforts and increasingly looked outside of Canada to meet its growing needs, including through a temporary foreign workers project. 

Last year, the company welcomed 49 foreign workers to Canada and has a target of hiring another 100 new employees. The workers have made a commitment to work for Olymel for two years, during which time the company hopes that many will seek permanent residency status.

In Renfrew and Lanark counties, the local labour market plan produced by the workforce planning board this past spring shows more than three-quarters (78 per cent) of industries in the region have experienced a negative impact on their businesses related to the pandemic. The most affected sectors were retail, healthcare and social assistance, accommodation and food services, and manufacturing and construction, according to the report.  

“There is no question more employers are talking about the challenges they are having in attracting and retaining workers,” said Bramburger, adding there’s more competition for workers and job seekers have more choices than ever before. 

Repeated work stoppages during the pandemic led many people nearing retirement to take an earlier exit from the workforce, says Heather Inwood-Montrose, small business advisor with Enterprise Renfrew County. It’s estimated that, in 2021, approximately 50 per cent of the population in Renfrew and Lanark counties was 45 years and older, above the provincial average of 44.3 per cent, according to data compiled by the counties and Algonquin College.

But that’s not the only factor at play.

“When people were forced to stay home due to business closures, this offered time to reflect on values and to re-evaluate career paths. This has driven a shift in prioritizing retraining, education and entrepreneurship to move away from minimum wage jobs and precarious employment,” Inwood-Montrose explained.

At the same time, a jump in remote working opportunities ignited by the pandemic is allowing more people to consider jobs independent of geography, when before they would have settled for positions closer to home. 

“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, some sectors of the economy in Lanark and Renfrew counties were already facing significant labour market shortages such as the skilled trades,” said Bramburger. Now, the shortage is being felt more widely.

“Virtually all business sectors are experiencing at least some labour shortages and challenges finding new employees,” added Wybou.

Algonquin College is responding by offering shorter-term programs that support the healthcare and forestry sectors in a concerted effort to attract new entry-level employees, Bramburger said.

“The college has also added additional sections of apprenticeship training in trades such as carpentry and electrical to feed the surging housing industry,” he adds.

“Businesses are coping in different ways, depending on the nature of the business,” added Wybou.

Food services and retail are asking existing staff to work longer hours and/or reducing hours of operation, while manufacturers are investing in technology, lengthening shifts and foregoing production increases, he said. 

“Virtually all businesses have been trying to be as accommodating and flexible with new hires as possible,” said Wybou. 

In many cases, salaries have gone up while more flexible hours and work environments are being adopted and enhanced benefit packages offered. The Tim Horton’s on Gore Street in Perth reduced its operating hours. CarePartners, a healthcare provider in Lanark, is offering signing bonuses to nurses and personal support workers.

On the flip side, poor connectivity in some areas is driving people away.

“Although internet connectivity has improved greatly in rural areas in recent years, there are still areas that lack high-speed internet and this has an impact on a region’s ability to market itself to entrepreneurs and new businesses,” said Bramburger.

The problem adds impetus for many potential employees to leave the region, according to the labour study, further adding to the labour shortage.

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