ACOA president discusses labour shortages

PORT HAWKESBURY: The president of Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) says the labour shortages that already exist are going to get much worse over the next 10 years, and entrepreneurs have two options to off-set this.

Francis McGuire discussed ACOA’s role in the Atlantic economy, opportunities for growth, and development priorities during a Lunch and Learn session hosted by the Strait Area Chamber of Commerce on October 24.

“Demographics are impacting things, especially here in Atlantic Canada and change is coming very, very quickly.”

McGuire said the business model of cheap, available labour is not a reliable strategy anymore.

The first thing businesses need to understand, is that wages are going up; and with competitors, employees will seek out the highest bidder, so those offering low wages can expect potential and current employees to look elsewhere.

His first option for businesses would be for them to turn to automation and mechanization, but he cautions that implies a higher level of education with employees.

“A lot of these jobs, whether that’s quality assurance, industrial engineering, or anything [along] that nature, these jobs start out at $70,000 to $80,000 a year,” McGuire said. “And you will have to hire these people, so you need to work with young people to let them know these jobs are available.”

When there is an opportunity to travel abroad for training or to attend a conference, McGuire advises that businesses need to include younger employees, showcase what is available to them, and that there is some fun in their line of work.

“People will look at that and realize there are really good jobs here and you don’t have to go to Ontario or out West to secure a high-end job.”

Since automation and mechanization won’t fulfill all labour shortages, McGuire said businesses are going to have to take a serious look at immigration.

The biggest issue with the food industry in Atlantic Canada is lack of workers. In fish plants, 30 to 40 per cent of workers are foreign, and McGuire said without immigration, the fishing industry wouldn’t be able to be as alive as it is today.

“When it comes to immigration, it’s easy enough to hire someone,” he said. “But you have to have the mindset the day you start, you have to think about how I’m going to help them settle here, how I’m going to help the family.”

For some employers, McGuire noted they don’t think of themselves as being in the social development field, but he continuously reminds them they are.

“You’ve got to get your head around it that you need to keep care of these people when they come here,” he said. “And it’s not just the employee, but you need to look after their families as well.”

McGuire said it’s never a hard sell but you need to focus people on what there is; you need to get the message out and repeat, repeat, repeat.

“People kind of see it in their own eyes a little bit, and when I do these things it’s sort of like crystallizing their thoughts.”