Tackling Eastern Ontario’s talent shortage

Immigration, training opportunities and job-matching efforts among initiatives aimed at accelerating population growth
talent manufacturing

OBJ recently expanded its coverage beyond the National Capital Region to include business news from towns and cities across Eastern Ontario. OBJ Regional takes a closer look at the businesses, investments and entrepreneurs driving the economy across this part of the province. Have thoughts or feedback? Email news@obj.ca.

Less than a week into February, 97 jobs had already been listed on the City of Cornwall’s job board, bringing the total to more than 200 openings available to job seekers. The jobs range from selling paint, delivering pizzas, grooming pets and mopping floors at midnight to completing tax returns, ensuring the safety of at-risk children as well as a variety of roles at the Cornwall Community Hospital.

Bob Peters, manager of Cornwall Economic Development, says it’s standard for 200 jobs to be up on the site at any time. It’s a handy resource for individuals who no longer need to search dozens of company websites for openings. It also neatly illustrates the biggest issue facing regional communities as they grapple with slow population growth and rapidly aging communities: Finding enough people to meet the growing demand of local employers.

Cornwall’s job board is just one of the strategies that Eastern Ontario municipalities are turning to in a bid to attract workers.

Ontario’s Ministry of Finance estimates that Eastern Ontario’s population, including the City of Ottawa, will rise by one-third from 2016 to 2046, from 1.82 million to slightly more than 2.41 million. 

While Ottawa’s population is expected to increase by 44 per cent, that healthy level of projected growth is not projected to be replicated in the region’s rural areas.

Immigration

Politicians and policymakers have been working for years to reverse those projected trends. In December, the provincial government announced a Regional Immigration Pilot program that grants permanent residency to foreign workers willing to work in 13 manufacturing job categories in Cornwall, Chatham-Kent and Belleville/Quinte West. The program requires employers to offer a job to a foreign worker and then recommend them as a potential immigrant to the province.

While welcoming the program, Peters cautioned against “overselling it” because the eventual granting of permanent residency remains a federal government responsibility, with the province only “supporting the immigrant’s path to permanency.”  That caution was shared by Renfrew County economic development manager Alastair Baird, who noted that governments have experimented with various pilot projects for a decade without meaningful results.

Janet Deline, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, acknowledged the two-year pilot alone would not solve the problem. However, she said the government would monitor its success and may use it as a model for other communities.

Another strategy involves using post-secondary institutions to introduce young people to the region.

Glenn Vollebregt, the CEO of St. Lawrence College, said 90 per cent of the school’s students stay in Eastern Ontario after graduation, increasing the labour pool for local employers.

With campuses in Cornwall, Brockville and Kingston, St. Lawrence College decided in 2010 to aggressively target international students to maintain its student numbers in an increasingly competitive market for higher education.

Thanks to targeted marketing campaigns and recruitment agents in offices all over the world, Vollebregt says international student numbers have grown from just 85 individuals three years ago to a projected 2,000 students by this fall – representing about 22 per cent of the college’s total enrollment.

Vollebregt aims for his international student cohort to diversify – recruiters have attracted students from 51 countries, but India and China are the largest source of recruits – and eventually grow it to represent 40 per cent of St. Lawrence’s total student body.

“When we recruit students to St. Lawrence, our goal and theirs is to get a job,” Vollebregt said. “Once they settle into our communities they generally stay and that’s so important for rural Eastern Ontario.”

St. Lawrence College also partnered with the Ontario government and the economic development offices of Leeds and Grenville, Brockville, Prescott and Gananoque last year to create a manufacturing skills training program for 50 unemployed residents, called Pathways to Production.

This program, now at the three-quarters mark, is already starting to fill available entry-level positions, said Leeds and Grenville economic development manager Ann Weir. Talent attraction and workforce development have become a strategic focus for the municipality’s council, and Weir said it is constantly working with local school boards to “narrow the gap” between employers and educators. 

Renfrew County’s Baird said retaining and expanding the community’s workforce is its highest economic development priority. Multiple businesses in Renfrew County with expansion plans struggle to find suitable employees. In response, the county has ramped up its promotional activities and presence at job fairs in the province.

Promoting Eastern Ontario’s advantages – its lifestyle and proximity to major population centres – is also a key theme for Lianne Ing, vice-president of Bubble Technology Industries, a radiation, explosives and research company based in Chalk River.

Ing suggested that programs aimed at making it easier for spouses of prospective employees drawn to Eastern Ontario by Bubble Technology Industries and other employers to find a job would greatly aid her recruitment efforts.

Ian Murdoch, business development manager at Kingston Economic Development, said it was precisely that issue which led the City of Kingston to establish the Dual Career Support Program. This program links a relocating spouse up with a career and relocation specialist to provide job searching assistance, networking opportunities and referrals to local support services.

Kingston has also become a referral partner for Global Skills Strategy. This program allows visa applications from highly skilled international applicants to be fast-tracked for certain positions. Another program, the Queen’s Career Apprenticeship, grants employers up to 40 per cent of the cost of hiring a Queen’s University arts or humanities graduate for 12 months in a bid to provide students with an incentive to stay in the region after graduation.

Despite all these efforts by individual communities, Peters says a concerted effort is needed by all levels of government to ensure more immigration reaches Ontario’s regional areas beyond the major cities. 

“That’s the challenge – there’s not much that Cornwall can do to change a worldwide phenomenon,” he said.

Five-year population change from the 2016 Census:

Ontario: 4.6%

City of Ottawa: 5.9%

Leeds and Grenville: 1.2%

County of Renfrew: 1.1%

Cornwall: 0.5%

Kingston: 0.4%