By Jaymie L. White
Special to Wreckhouse Press
PORT AUX BASQUES – The number of ‘help wanted’ signs in the windows of businesses all across the province has seen a steady increase over the years, and in this region it has become a glaring reminder that the workforce is on the decline.
MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo – La Poile) said it is an issue that has been increasing for a number of reasons.
“We’ve had outmigration for decades upon decades, and we’ve also had a slowing birthrate increased by an increased age amongst our population. So all of those factored in together, when you look at a graph of our demographics, it’s not great.”
Parsons said it is an issue that he became intimately aware of about a year ago.
“I think its become a well-known, across the province, across the country issue. And now it’s something too I’ve been seeing, not just in the front line or service industry, but I’m seeing it very much in the very specific, specialized, high-tech side of things – especially in the tech industry and other specialized industries. It’s absolutely a very real issue and there are different ways in which to combat it, but they are never as fast as you want and some of them require a significant number of different pieces moving together.”
Nadine Osmond, secretary with Port aux Basques and Area Chamber of Commerce said the worker shortage is something that has been talked about for years.
“We had someone come out from Advanced Education and Skills department because, at the time, they were promoting a program, and this was around 2012. Around 2012 the government came out with a document called Outlook 2020, and it highlighted into it all the industries that would have a shortage of workers in the year 2020, and the reason that Advanced Education and Skills was presenting this document was they had some funds to do training, like if there were potential employees out there that needed training to get into the workforce, they had a good funding program to assist with that.”
Osmond said the information that was provided in the document was accurate when looking at the state of the workforce now.
“I remember going through the document and the presentation was really good, and it’s hard to prepare for things ten years down the road. Ten years ago, when you’re hearing this information you’re thinking, ‘how serious is it,’ but I mean, it did come true. Whoever did the research behind it obviously knew what they were doing.”
Parsons said there are numerous ways in which the decreased workforce can be addressed.
“The primary way, throughout this entire country, is immigration. We need to open our borders to individuals, especially those with skills in trades from elsewhere who want to come to the best country in the world, to live here, and we need that, and we are going to need that on a number of fronts. And taking that down to a Newfoundland and Labrador level, our demographic issues as it relates to a very much aging workforce is very real. I think we have a lot to offer here in terms of our province. People want to come somewhere that’s safe, stable, with welcoming and happy people. We have that.”
Parsons said that even though immigration is the primary way to increase the current workforce, it’s not something that is achieved simply because there are federal jurisdictions, and each province is in competition with each other to attract these individuals.
On the other side of things, there is a workforce out there that isn’t fully employed and they need to be consulted to see what the barriers are and how to minimize them.
“We have people out there that I think can contribute, but we have to incentivize. We want people to be wanting and able to contribute in the workforce, so when it comes to education, upskilling, those are things we really need to work on.”
The pandemic placed increased pressures on the workforce, and Parsons said the ability to work remotely has also increased the competition.
“When I look at just the tech industry, we have a number of jobs that are not created because we don’t have the skillset yet or the people to fill it. We’re competing across the country and, in fact, to the point where I know there are American companies who, looking just in terms of salary, their offer is more than ours due to the nature of their currency, and they’re competing in the same market as us because of the ability to work remotely.”
Port Aux Basques Mayor Brian Button said this is also a concern that council has discussed.
“When it comes to workers, we are seeing more and more businesses in our area with help wanted signs, now hiring signs. Every given week I’ve counted up anywhere from 10 or more businesses that are looking for employees.”
Button said he has seen businesses change their hours of operation, which could be attributed to a couple of factors.
“They are having a shortage of employees and having trouble finding employees. I know Marine Atlantic has done some hiring and people have moved on to that, but there’s others that are around that have been seeking and looking for work, and there’s jobs out there and so I’m not sure what the problems are there, but we seem to have a shortage of a workforce.”
Button said, in many areas, foreign workers are going to have to be brought in because businesses are going to need help to survive.
“You can’t operate a business and make any money or keep the doors open if your doors have to close because you can’t find employees. We have had discussions, and I know Minister (Gerry) Byrne has been working over the last little bit, not only with the Ukraine piece, but I know he has been working on foreign workers coming to this province and trying to help out in the public sector, out in the business community, so we are part of those discussions.”
Button said COVID has had a significant impact on many businesses who have already been struggling with a lack of manpower, and when they have a few people out with COVID, the staff just aren’t available to help make up those absences.
“In some cases, and I’ve seen it in our business community here, where businesses have had to close for a couple of days, I’ve seen them reduce their hours. I’ve seen places where they’ve had to have drive-thru only where they’re unable to open the inside because they just don’t have enough employees, there’s a shortage of employees, and they’ve posted the reasons why. So it’s something that I find mind boggling really, that we’ve got so many signs out there of people looking for work. There shouldn’t be anybody without work at times.”
Button said it isn’t just the workforce that is struggling, but a lack of volunteers is an issue being felt in the region as well.
“I know from a volunteer perspective, trying to organize and put things together from different volunteer groups, its getting more difficult to find volunteers that are wanting to help out. A lot of the same volunteers have been volunteering for years and they’re getting burnt out. They’ve done a lot of volunteer work in their communities, and they just need to step back. They can’t keep it all going.”
Button said it is harder to get people to help out, which increases the demand on each individual volunteer.
“Overall it’s just becoming harder and harder where we’re having to take different ongoing items and cancel them, not because of participation, but sometimes it’s because we can’t find the volunteers to get it up and going, to organize it, and most things can’t happen unless you have organization and have somebody running it. The volunteer base just seems to be dried up and we’re having difficulty finding people.”
Button said volunteers are extremely important to communities across the province.
“In order to keep our communities going, especially our smaller communities and our rural communities, we depend heavily on volunteers, so I try to encourage as many people to come out and volunteer when they can. The more we have to volunteer, the less demand we have on certain individuals who, after a matter of time, they burn out.”