Susan Wilson made history this year when Canadian conglomerate J.D. Irving Ltd. made her its first director of immigration.
Irving, Atlantic Canada’s largest private company, has been recruiting overseas for a long time. Employees in its giant IT centre come from 14 different countries and make up 11 per cent of the staff. There are scores of foreign-born workers in its forestry, trucking and manufacturing divisions, but the company has never before set up a department dedicated to their needs.
Irving launched a centre of excellence in immigration at the beginning of 2018 because it knows that the labour shortage in Atlantic Canada is poised to go from tough to devastating.
The company will hire more than 8,000 people over the next three years. Francis McGuire, president of the federal government’s Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, predicts that up to one third of those workers will come from outside Canada. He says the region is moving into a labour drought and that some businesses will not survive without international recruitment.
“In the 1990s, you’d have a call centre job fair and you’d have 1,000 people. Now you get 31 people and all of them are employed, they are just looking to improve their situation,” he said.
“This is a dramatic change in the landscape of the Maritimes. The paradigm has completely shifted. The public discourse has to catch up, and government policies have to change.”
Thousands of jobs, no one to fill them
Reports by the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council , the Conference Board of Canada and the pivotal 2014 “Report of the Nova Scotia Commission on Building our New Economy” have all warned of upcoming labour shortages. Statistics Canada reports that the region had more than 23,000 jobs without the workers to fill them.
But for many companies, the crisis is already here. Big companies, small companies, high-tech start-ups and century-old family firms all reported trouble finding the people they need to operate.
The labour shortage is masked by unemployment rates higher than the national average, explained McGuire, because many local residents either don’t have the skills in demand or can’t move to where their skills are needed.
Ganong Bros. Ltd. lost customers this year because it was short 40 workers and couldn’t fill orders for the famous chocolates it has made in St. Stephen, N.B. since 1873.
Len Tucker owns Tim Hortons franchises in Deer Lake and St. Anthony, NL. He, his wife and his daughter all work full-time in the family business because they are chronically short five or six employees.
“If someone walks in the store, we hire them,” he said. “We don’t let them leave. We don’t even let them go out the door.”
Many people are working on solutions.
Convincing workers to put down roots
All four provinces have developed immigration streams that help employers recruit workers from outside Canada. In 2017, the federal government established the Atlantic Immigration Pilot, a three-year experiment that gives business a lead role in deciding who can settle in Canada.
The hope is that the new program will convince workers from abroad to put down roots.
Employers can recruit internationally without going through a lengthy approval process that requires advertising for Canadian workers, but they must develop a settlement plan to help employees adjust to Canadian life.
The bonus for workers is that they can bring their families with them immediately and they are fast-tracked for permanent resident status. The Atlantic Immigration Pilot can shave years off the time it takes a foreign national to become a permanent resident of Canada.
As of Feb. 1, 2018, almost 900 employers in Atlantic Canada were approved to participate in the program; more than 1,000 employees had either applied for permanent residence through the pilot or were preparing their paperwork to do so; 150 applications for permanent residence had been approved.
The pilot did not meet its ambitious goal to bring 2,000 workers into the region in its first year, but it’s picking up speed quickly, in part because the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency has dedicated 15 staff just to visit employers and help them understand the benefits of the program — and how to do the paperwork.
“This translates into new workers and their families arriving in Atlantic Canada every month to fill job vacancies and help grow the economy,” Faith St. John, a communications adviser for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), wrote in response to a query about the program.
‘Worldwide labour shortage’
Day & Ross Transportation Group was one of the first companies to bring workers to Canada using the Atlantic Immigration Pilot. It took about eight months to get through the paperwork; two computer programmers from India arrived in November and an IT specialist from Cuba arrived in December.
“There is a worldwide shortage of labour in our industry,” said Mark Osborne, vice president of human relations for Day & Ross.
“But people don’t realize it’s not just drivers. Transportation is complex. We track behaviour, emissions efficiency, location. We need people in IT, finance, accounting, dispatch.”
Trucking is not the only traditional job that has been transformed by technology.
When Irving puts out a call for forestry workers, it is no longer looking for strong backs and well-oiled chainsaws. The company now uses a sophisticated light system to chart every tree, stream, slope and gully in the forests that it owns and manages. Cutting down trees has turned into a computer job.
Workers still operate machines, but they are looking at a computer screen guided by more than 25 billion data points. The axe has given way to the joy stick.
A key part of the Atlantic Immigration Pilot program is getting employers to go beyond their traditional role and help newcomers thrive outside of work. The theory is that recruits will only stay if they are happy.
‘On-the-ground-support’ for immigrants
That kind of on-the-ground support is something the Atlantic Ballet Theatre has been doing for more than a decade. The Moncton-based dance company has perfected many of the best practices that big business is now being urged to adopt.
“Our viability depends on foreign workers,” said co-founder and CEO Susan Chalmers-Gauvin. “We have to pay very close attention to our people to see if they are happy or if they are sad. I am always keeping an eye.”
Of its 21 full-time employees, 12 are immigrants. They come from nine different countries.
Louis-Philippe Dionne, the operations manager and a former company dancer, scouts apartments for new recruits before they arrive. He meets dancers at the airport, takes them to Service Canada to get a social insurance number and to the bank to set up an account.
The company brings a retired professor into the studio for English lessons before and after rehearsals. Dancers are escorted to church, to the supermarket and the mall. Dionne makes sure the dancers have good winter boots and coats and links the dancers to local families who share their culture.
Chalmers-Gauvin says she spends up to 20 per cent of her time dealing with cultural and immigration issues.
McGuire says the next task is education for the whole region.
“This has completely changed the mentality in the Maritimes,” he said. “We are going through a massive education piece. It is a tremendous sociological challenge.”
This article derives from The People Imperative. Kelly Toughill researched and wrote the report for the Public Policy Forum, which is conducting a three-year project on Atlantic immigration and revitalization.