Dealing with labour shortages in the North

Michael Denham, President and CEO of Business Development Canada, was in Prince George last week. Bill Phillips photo
Michael Denham, President and CEO of Business Development Canada, was in Prince George last week. Bill Phillips photo

BY BILL PHILLIPS

bill@pgdailynews.ca

It’s nothing new to businesses in the North … there is a labour shortage.

Businesses across the spectrum are having a hard time attracting, and retaining, staff.

Michael Denham, President and CEO of Business Development Canada says 600 jobs were created in Prince George in 2018, however only 100 people joined the labour force. He spoke to about 80 business managers in the city last week and offered some tips on how to beat those tough statistics.

“We did a lot of research on this topic,” he said in an interview. “We we found was that in manufacturing, retail, and construction, more than half of the entrepreneurs in Canada are finding it tough to find the talent that they need.”

With major projects coming on stream in the North, such as a LNG Canada’s plant at Kitimat, the pipeline construction needed for it, and Site C, it will become even more difficult to find workers.

He said with 600 jobs created but the workforce only expanding by 100 jobs, it means businesses have to turn orders down and can’t respond quickly to opportunities.

“It’s going to be very pronounced here, given the new projects and activity,” he said. “… What’s driving this is things that aren’t going to change. It will be with us for a while.”

He said the economy is going to continue to grow, modestly, but the demographics of Baby Boomers retiring and not enough people entering the workforce to replace them means the labour shortage will stick around.

“That’s just the reality that we have to come to grips with and deal with,” he said.

Denham said there are four strategies that businesses can employ to help attract and retain employees.

The first strategy is to find ways to tap into segments of the population that aren’t always looked at.

“There are some segments of the workforce were the participation rate is still relatively low … Indigenous, new Canadians, immigrants, folks who’ve retired,” he said.

He pointed to Wolftek here in Prince George that was in dire need of machinists, millwrights, and welders.

“One thing they did very well was go to Ireland,” he said. “Ireland has immigrant worker programs to help companies like Wolftek bring Irish talent here.”

The second strategy is a marketing retention strategy, he said, but one that focuses on their own employees.

“Much like companies can market themselves to their customers, they’ve got to have that mindset with respect to their own employees,” he said.

A local example, he said, is Krell Wellness in Prince George, which has a very low employee turnover rate.

“They’re quite explicit around the initiatives they take internally to make Krell Wellness a place that people don’t want to leave, as employees,” he said.

The third strategy is for companies to invest in technology to reduce operating costs.

The last strategy is for companies to work together “as a community” to attract workers.

“Rather than compete, what would be good with the community would be to connect with communities in Latin America or Europe that has the kind of talent you need, so everyone benefits from tapping into other sources of talent.”

That can also be a benefit if several workers are attracted from one area.

“Think about attracting a critical mass of people from a certain community so when they come, they’re with friends and family and people of similar cultures,” he said. “They can feel at home in place like Prince George and not feel the desire to go to the Lower Mainland to be with the community down there.”

It’s not necessarily easy, but his advice to businesses is invest, invest, invest.

“Invest in finding the people you need, invest in making sure that once you’ve found them people choose to stay, and invest in automation, software, technology so you can grow without needing to constantly hire,” he said.

The Business Development Bank can also help. The BDC is a lending institution and will help businesses with investments in equipment and software. It also has a consulting arm with experts who can give advice.

“We want to see companies succeed,” he said. “We’re here to help entrepreneurs deal with this.”

The event was hosted by BDC in partnership with Northern Regional Construction Association.