Labour shortage pains stretch across the board

Health, skilled trades sectors expected to be the hardest hit

When Emma Pavlov joined the human resources department at Toronto’s University Health Network (UHN) several years ago, one of the first things she did was subsidize employee parking. The move was designed to encourage suburban employees to work at UHN’s three downtown hospitals.

“Many of them were commuting and could stay at home and work and earn the same money,” she says.

In the face of the much-discussed labour shortage, Pavlov says she has to be even more creative and go to lengths unheard of in the past. As vice-president of HR and organizational development, she has been at the forefront of making UHN one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers for five years in a row.

Yet, Pavlov still struggles to find qualified people for a range of positions. Like most other health-care institutions in Canada, UHN is dealing with a shortage of nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians, surgeons, anesthesiologists, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, clinical managers — the list goes on.

“If they’re out there in the marketplace, it’s not all that hard for UHN to attract them, but there just aren’t many of them,” she says.

Health care is facing one of the most acute labour shortages in Canada, according to Human Resources and Social Development Canada’s report Looking Ahead: A 10-Year Outlook for the Canadian Labour Market.

Sectors under pressure

It looks at the sectors currently under the most pressure, which include health, human resources, oil and gas, skilled trades (such as construction), information technology and social science and government services. Almost all are expected to be struggling to find workers over the next decade.

Another study, the 2007 Talent Shortage Survey by Manpower, found similar trends. According to Manpower, the top 10 jobs employers are desperate to fill are (in order from hardest to easiest):

skilled manual trades;

sales representatives;

customer service representatives;




machinists and machine operators;


management and executives; and

cleaners and domestic staff.

Those findings are backed by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). It’s already reporting long-term vacancies in construction, agriculture, hospitality, retail services, transportation, wholesale, business services, education and health services, finance and even manufacturing.

“It’s been pretty consistent for a few years now, which sectors are feeling the pinch,” says Corinne Pohlmann, CFIB’s vice-president of national affairs. “But I have to say, overall, there aren’t a lot of sectors left in the economy today that aren’t feeling it — especially in certain parts of the country.”

Labour crunch a tidal wave going West to East

Most industries in British Columbia and Alberta — and soon, Saskatchewan — are facing a labour crunch, due to robust economies, oil and gas development and an aging population, says Pohlmann.

While the East is lagging behind, she says there is “a bit of a tidal wave” crossing the country, especially when it comes to finding workers in skilled trades.

“Out West, it’s about lots of work. In the East, it’s about out-migration to the West,” she says. “People from Eastern Canada are moving out West, into the cities and, at the same time, there’s a pretty healthy economy (at home) compared to previous years.”

Laura Garton, director of HR management research with the Conference Board of Canada, says while some provinces are being spared the acute crunch right now, they will face it in the near future. IT is one sector that is already struggling.

“IT is in everything now,” she says. “Every industry uses IT — gaming, e-learning, banking, all of the new media — but they’re not getting the people into the schools.”

The Conference Board predicts that by 2025 the country will face a skilled labour deficit of 1.2 million people. This prediction is based on the fact the first wave of baby boomers will reach 65 in three years, beginning their slow withdrawal from the labour force.

Garton says organizations need to start looking beyond their current labour pool. This includes moving more women into leadership positions, accommodating people with disabilities and encouraging older workers to stay beyond retirement.

“Definitely, it’s looking at all sources of the labour pool and seeing where maybe there’s been some missed opportunities,” she says.

Internal training, e-learning and cross-training will also be essential HR tools. The mining industry is already adopting this approach, scooping up workers from industries in decline that require similar skill sets — such as forestry — for retraining in mining.

New ideas to address shortages

Pohlmann says immigration is another solution, but even allowing more temporary workers into Canada won’t solve the problem. Business and government need to look at new ideas, she says. The CFIB is proposing an “employment insurance holiday” for its members, under which they would get a break on their portion of EI so they could use that money for training.

“Often what they’re doing is hiring people who are under-qualified and offering to train them in this position. That’s really expensive for a small company,” she says.

At UHN in Toronto, Pavlov’s team has become innovative. To combat the shortage of anesthesiologists, UHN created a job classification called “anesthesiology assistants” — giving respiratory therapists training to perform some anesthesiology duties.

UHN has also partnered with the provincial government to pilot a physician assistant program, arranged with York University in Toronto, to educate future leaders for clinical management and train its own nurses in critical care.

Pavlov says it’s all part of creating a brand, which is essential in this economy.

“It helps us attract candidates, in a shrinking pool, whom perhaps another hospital would not be able to,” she says.

Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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