Cities face off over talent

The battle for Canadian workers heats up across the country

Last month, Winnipeg residents opened their local paper to find a 20-plus-page insert advertising the job and lifestyle prospects in Calgary — a city more than 1,300 kilometres away.

“We saw it, we looked at it, we winced,” said Dave Angus, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. “Calgary is getting very aggressive. Winnipeg has to get as aggressive.”

The insert in the Winnipeg Sun followed an announcement by Calgary’s mayor Dave Bronconnier and Heather Douglas, president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, that the city would be wooing Canadians from other cities — especially skilled tradespeople and professionals — to fill its labour shortage.

While no details were released at the press conference on Jan. 10, Douglas said she wants an action plan to address Calgary’s labour shortage. Melissa Homenuik, the chamber’s manager of communications, said the city, the chamber and Calgary Economic Development are formalizing the plan together. It’s expected that Calgary will be sending out representatives to other cities to make their pitch in the coming months.

Calgary’s plan to draw workers and professionals from other Canadian cities has spurred other municipalities into action to address their own labour woes. “When you see a 23-page insert from another city, it lights the fire within your own city to react,” said Angus.

The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce’s annual business issues survey found that the number one concern for businesses in Manitoba is the skilled labour shortage. Angus said he expects the shortage to remain a top concern for a number of years.

“We’re certainly having discussions and pulling together a strategy about how we’re going to address the issue,” he said. “We need to do things in a very targeted and strategic way.”

Winnipeg has to focus on what distinguishes it from Calgary, said Angus. That includes its industries such as aerospace, biotechnology and new media, as well as the city’s vibrant arts community. “The creative environment of Winnipeg is very attractive,” he said. “It provides more of a unique experience than Calgary.”

While Winnipeg might find it hard to compete with Calgary, Edmonton’s proximity to Calgary makes it even tougher. For years it has been known as Calgary’s boring cousin and a blue-collar government town. But that’s an unfair characterization, said Karen Link, manager of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) labour market program.

“Edmonton has an amazing booming economy, life is very good here. The retail sector is second to none. Culturally, it’s very strong. There’s a great arts community,” said Link, adding that the city offers a slower pace, which many people appreciate, and “an extremely good education system. We’ve got a lot to be proud of.”

However, the city needs to do a better job of selling these benefits to other Canadians. The EEDC is launching a glossy, 100-page lifestyle magazine that it will distribute across Canada to attract people to Edmonton and hopefully change the negative perception that some people have of the city, said Link.

The EEDC is also targeting secondary immigrants — new Canadians who settled in other parts of Canada, specifically Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. With that in mind, the corporation is developing a labour attraction website with resources for immigrants, including job postings and information about settling in the city, and best practices in recruitment and retention of immigrants for employers.

The city is planning its own national awareness campaign, said Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel, the details of which he hopes to unveil in the spring. “I think it’s great that Calgary’s being proactive and Edmonton’s going to be proactive too,” he said. “Edmonton has led the country in the last couple of years in economic growth but now we don’t have enough people to fill the jobs.”

The city has some experience in marketing itself to the rest of Canada. Last April, EEDC president Allan Scott and Mandel met with major companies in Toronto and Ottawa as part of Edmonton Edge, a campaign to attract more businesses to the city.

While Calgary may be one of the first cities to actively market itself to Canadians living in other cities across the country, the Waterloo region, which includes the Ontario cities of Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge, has some experience recruiting Canadian expatriates from the United States. Last June, Canada’s Technology Triangle (a private-public partnership that markets the area nationally and internationally), along with various technology firms and the University of Waterloo, travelled to California’s Silicon Valley, to entice tech professionals to return home.

“It’s been a tougher ride since the (tech) bubble burst in 2001,” said John Tennant, CEO of Canada’s Technology Triangle. “Many of them are interested in getting back to Canada. We want them to know that there are opportunities in the Waterloo region for them.”

Rather than a perpetual tug of war with other Canadian cities over a limited supply of Canadian talent, Tennant said his organization is working to attract and retain immigrants to the Waterloo region. An immigrant employers network, to be launched in the next couple of months, will work on employer initiatives to attract, retain and integrate immigrants into the workforce.

He said he would like to see more government participation at all levels in developing a strong immigration policy. “Working at the federal level and having our provincial governments become involved will greatly strengthen what our communities do in attracting immigrants because, at the end of the day, that’s where the net growth is going to be. It’s not going to come by moving around a fixed pool of people.”

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