By Dan Rankin
“We are experiencing a significant labour shortage in this area, meaning we have more jobs than we have people,” said Partners in Employment manager Deb Hotchkiss at an Industry Breakfast for local employers and municipal officials Wednesday morning at the St. Marys Golf and Country Club. “You might not be feeling it yet, but let me guarantee you will be feeling it in the very near future.”
To address this and other issues facing the local economy, the Joint Economic Development Committee of the Township of Perth South and the Town of St. Marys arranged the event this week. Speaking at the event were Hotchkiss, Perth County Economic Development Coordinator Kristin Sainsbury and United Way Perth-Huron Executive Director Ryan Erb.
Hotchkiss said that while the area has a high youth unemployment rate, overall the jobless rate is about four percent. The problem is, there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill many job vacancies. She described contacting seven employers one morning recently and learning they were looking to hire a combined 106 people.
“In Stratford a plant with 300 employees is actively hiring because 100 of those employees will retire in the next 10 years,” she said. “Another plant in Stratford has 40 employees who are all eligible for retirement at any moment.”
Elsewhere in the province, in communities that are popular landing destinations for immigrants to Canada are having exactly the opposite problem she said. “We know there are a lot of unemployed people in Ontario,” she said. “We just need to get them to where the jobs are.” Partners in Employment is in regular contact with cities such as Toronto, Ottawa, Windsor and Peterborough about bringing Perth County employers to job fairs in those areas. Some new Canadians she’s interviewed personally are “seriously interest in moving out of the GTA,” she said.
“They were only there because that’s where they landed and they didn’t know how to get out,” she said. Another way they are working to fill job vacancies is helping employers take advantage of job grants and a training incentive program to offset the cost of training new or existing employees, she said.
In her speech, Sainsbury presented the results of the county’s labour market strategy study.
“The goal of the whole project was to come up a comprehensive action plan, and come up with things we could be doing over the next five years to try to move the needle on labour market issues in this area,” she said.
That included conducting virtual job fairs, the creation of promotional videos, a student training day and surveys and interviews with employers, youths, immigrants and others. The resulting report, “Opportunity 2020: Transforming the Labour Market in Perth County, Stratford and St. Marys,” can be found on the county’s OpportunityLivesHere.ca website.
“We learned that 71 percent of firms plan on hiring in the next six months, and 75 percent of firms plan on hiring in the next 18 months,” she said. “This translates to over 3,400 positions that will need to be filled in the next two years.”
Besides many workers reaching retirement age, many young people in the area “go to the city to gain their education and they’re not always coming back,” she said.
Something else they noticed with young workers is that there is “a disconnect between what people see as traditional industry such as manufacturing and agriculture, and what the truth is of what those jobs look like,” she said. “The truth about agriculture is that it’s highly automated and technologically driven now. The same with manufacturing. We’re finding more and more need for robotics. But kids, I don’t think understand that. We think there’s some work to do in trying to inform kids about the opportunities in this area.”
Some of the positions with the most high demand in this area include truck drivers, early childhood educators, personal support workers, nurses, jobs in management and sales, and skilled trades such as welders, millwrights and CNC setters, she said.
Based on things they read in surveys from employers, there needs to be “better linkages between our high schools and local industry,” she said.
“The outcome is an action plan with a lot of theme areas and goals over the next few years,” she said, addressing the crowd of around 50 community leaders and business owners. “Many of these can’t happen in the absence of you as employers engaging. When we hold initiatives like job fairs, if no employers show up, you’re not going to fill your positions.”
Similarly, she said, new features on the OpportunityLivesHere.ca site such as the jobs board and “Apartmint” rental listings page rely on users populating them with jobs and apartments for potential newcomers to Perth County. “It really is meant to be a website that promotes this area as a great place to live and work.,” she said.
Another website hoping to accomplish that is RegionalRideshare.ca, which Erb discussed in his presentation. “It’s basically an online carpooling system,” he said. “Employers can sign up and create your own separate page for your business and connect your employees with one another within the system.”
“We know that our population in this area is not getting younger and we have kids continuing to leave the area at a greater rate than we have people coming back,” Sainsbury said. “So, this project will be important and the implementation of this project will be important. We need to do this collectively, both industry, government and the organizations.”