Atlantic Canada fights to hire, retain workers

HR practitioners across the country would be wise to take notice: Expert

Atlantic Canada fights to hire, retain workers
The Maritimes (Halifax above) lag far behind the rest of Canada in terms of immigration retention, according to a report. Credit: Henryk Sadura (Shutterstock)

Finding and keeping workers in Atlantic Canada has become more difficult than ever.

And if a long-term solution is to be found, the region needs to become more than just a stopover for immigrants, according to a report released in March by the Public Policy Forum, a think tank in Ottawa.

At present, the Maritimes lag far behind the rest of Canada in terms of immigrant retention, it said.

Nova Scotia’s regional five-year retention rate is 72 per cent; Newfoundland and Labrador’s is 56 per cent; New Brunswick is 52 per cent; and Prince Edward Island is 18 per cent. Every province outside the Maritimes has a retention rate above 80 per cent.

The reasons immigrants continue to exit the area are clear, said The People Imperative: Strategies to Grow Population and Prosperity in Atlantic Canada:

“They seek better job opportunities and higher compensation, better educational opportunities... better social services and cultural amenities, and ties to ethnic community and extended family.”

While the region’s major urban centres are faring well in terms of recruitment and retention, rural employers are hardest hit, said Charlie Carter, policy lead for the Public Policy Forum, which is conducting a three-year research project on the issue.

“It’s the small towns, the rural areas that are really struggling,” he said. “There are swaths of the countryside where there are a lot of people who are out of work, but they tend to be quite a bit older and they simply don’t have the skill sets that employers are now looking for.”

Higher-skilled firms have been able to fill roles with new graduates or international recruits, but the same cannot be said for industry sectors such as forestry, trucking and agriculture, said Carter.

“Young people in the region are not pursuing those types of careers, and the types of wages that are available just aren’t drawing people into those fields or attracting people from elsewhere in Canada.”

“It’s hard to keep people in those jobs,” he said. “It’s a good way for somebody to get started in Canada, but they’re going to move on after a year or two, because once they have their feet under them, they can pursue work that pays a bit better.”

Labour shortages, skills challenges

Despite many years of warnings, employers and post-secondary institutions failed to take heed of labour shortage issues until recently, said Francis McGuire, president of the federal government’s Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency in Moncton, N.B.

“These big social, cultural movements — you never really see it coming at you till you notice you’re in the middle of (it)… and it’s going to accelerate very quickly.”

“It is going to be a decade of dealing with this,” he said. “The good news is people are realizing it and starting to learn how to cope with it.”

A total of 23,000 jobs in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island went unfilled in 2016, according to Statistics Canada.

Combined with an aging population, the western migration of core-aged workers during the oil boom has resulted in the current labour shortage affecting grocery stores, coffee shops, fish plants and hotels, said McGuire.

“Everybody can’t find somebody,” he said, noting seasonal businesses are especially hard hit. “In the old days, you had 20 weeks (of work) and people took it because it was all they could get.”

The labour market issues mean employers are being forced to offer better working conditions, or turn to temporary workers or automation options, said McGuire.

And many Atlantic employers are viewing the future with trepidation due to the added responsibilities that come with finding international workers.

“Don’t underestimate the difficulty and fear for the entrepreneur,” he said. “It’s overwhelming… This is all new to the vast majority of our employers.”

To make matters worse, the region’s labour shortage is poised to go from tough to devastating, according to Kelly Toughill, associate professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax.

For years, warnings were issued that a “demographic bomb” was going to hit the region, she said.

“There are a number of different things that have led to a broader social shift in how people see immigration as related to the communities of Atlantic Canada,” said Toughill.

“There’s a shift in workplace culture here that is taking place specifically to accommodate and encourage immigration.”

“Lots of employers are moving into a much more active role in terms of helping their employees settle — but also helping the entire family settle in the community — and really trying to look after the emotional well-being of their employees, not just workplace safety and a decent wage,” she said.

Immigration issues

To replenish the workforce, the federal government has introduced a new immigration pathway — the Atlantic Immigration Pilot — to fast-track workers into the Maritimes.

The program provides a streamlined and consistent immigration framework that is common to all Maritime provinces, according to McGuire.

Launched in March 2017, the three-year pilot gives business a primary role in determining who is chosen to put roots down in Canada. The plan cuts much of the red tape previously tied to the immigration process, but also requires employers to develop settlement plans to help new staff adjust.

“You have to understand those kinds of dynamics when you’re bringing (workers) over,” he said. “What do they want? How are you going to help them get education? How you’re going to get them a doctor… All these things are brand-new for people.”

“There’s a talent gap there that we need to fill and we do it through immigration, recruitment, through better education… all those kind of things,” said McGuire.

“It’s quite a revolution, if you would, in terms of what our private sector has to learn.”

It has been refreshing to see the government experiment with new immigration techniques such as the current pilot, said Carter.

“It’s deliberately requiring that employers work more closely with the local settlement agencies, and that increases the potential for people to integrate more quickly and more successfully, and potentially stick around a bit longer,” he said. “From a retention point of view, it makes sense to be requiring employers to be thinking about local integration.”

However, it remains to be seen how the added responsibilities on small and medium-sized business owners affects companies’ sustainability, said Carter.

“Putting more of a load on business is fine in some situations when you’re dealing with (large employers such as) J.D. Irving or McCain Foods. They have very large HR structures and they’ve already been doing this — they can staff up to help settle people and to work with spouses and the family, find housing and do that detailed stuff which is so daunting for a newcomer,” he said.

“I worry about how the small and medium-sized firms are going to navigate this and whether there’s the associated infrastructure in the settlement services and in local and provincial governments to be supporting newcomers, as well as businesses just to get through those pathways, to get through that paperwork.”

“No matter what, a business owner is taking on more responsibility for an individual, and probably for a family, than if they were just hiring a new Canadian grad or somebody who’s moving jobs, who grew up in Canada,” said Carter.

Immigration alone is not the solution to the labour market issues, he said.

“It’s a component of what needs to be a broad structural approach to what Atlantic Canada is facing with an aging population and the demographic challenges that it’s now dealing with, and that the rest of Canada — at least the other provinces broadly — (are) also going to be confronting in the coming years,” said Carter.

“While immigration can help address — in the very short-term — some of the immediate issues around people with irrelevant skills and with a rapidly aging population, you need to have the business environment where there can be GDP growth and economic expansion.”

Role of HR

While Atlantic Canada comes to terms with its worker shortage challenge and potential solutions, HR practitioners across the country would be wise to take notice, said Toughill.

“Many areas of the country are going to face the same kind of demographic pressure that Atlantic Canada has,” she said. “This region’s deeper in the demographic hole than the rest of Canada, and this region made a lot of mistakes to get to where it is now in terms of immigration.”

“For companies and employers, there’s a lot to learn. And I really hope that employers end up sharing best practices and don’t consider their immigration systems and policies an issue of competitive advantage because I think the country as a whole needs to get this stuff right.”

At present, best practice includes recruiting for best fit ahead of skills, as well as selecting people from appropriate international markets, said Toughill.

“It’s the same truism for HR everywhere — hiring on attitude and aptitude as much as hard skills,” she said. “But, in this case, you have to look at aptitude for the community as a whole, because the danger, at least here, is that people will then just move to Toronto or Vancouver as soon as they can.”

A review of overall business strategy in terms of external recruitment and organizational structure is also recommended, said Detry Carragher, chair of CPHR Prince Edward Island and principal management consultant at Carvo Group in Charlottetown.

“What needs to happen is an internal assessment of your current workplace practices,” she said. “Immigration is one solution, but we have to look at it parallel to other solutions as well.”

Questions could include: Do employee skill sets require upgrading? Have job requirements changed? Can you automate? said Carragher.

“Behind the scenes, what can we do in-house to keep those people once (we) actually get them? In some organizations, there are holes in the buckets. If you don’t have a good structure in your organization and there’s all these cracks in your bucket, (workers are) going to leave. So (consider) everything from inclusion to wraparound supports in the community, all those other things. That’s a bit of a shift for employers.”

HR practitioners in Atlantic Canada would also be wise to review program supports available in their region, she said.

“You can’t be an expert in all things,” said Carragher. “Call somebody who knows. Reach out to the service delivery organizations and ask them… Each province has dedicated staff resources to help navigate those programs.”

Diversity and inclusion will also provide a new challenge for HR in the Maritimes, said McGuire.

“How do you create a diverse workforce? How do you manage a diverse workforce? What happens when 20 per cent of your workforce comes from Africa?” he said. “How do you make sure the communities and the co-workers accept them? How do you bring that all together? Those are new challenges.”

With so much change in human capital, HR’s value is rising fast — even within small business, said Carter.

“A small business owner can only give 24 hours in the day and a lot of them are working 80-, 100-hour weeks already, so some of them just aren’t going be able to survive,” he said.

“It’s a profound shift in how business will be done.”

And the profession is expanding in larger firms as well, said Carter, noting that J.D. Irving recently created a director of immigration position to specifically deal with the issue of recruiting specialized machinery workers.

“There is a changing role, certainly for some HR professionals and some business owners and execs — those who have seen the writing on the wall and realized that the growth of the labour market locally and across all of Canada is coming pretty much entirely from immigration,” he said.

“You need an HR department that not only can figure out where these people are, but also can work with a spouse and with kids… You want the family to be employed and to be engaged in the community. And so, in some cases, businesses can take that on and they’ve already realized they have to do that.”

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