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The Town of Saugeen Shores hosted a Let's Talk: Labour Shortage event at the Bruce County Museum March 20. The panel consisted of, from left, Gemma Mendez-Smith, Executive Director of the Four County Labour Market Planning Board; Pat Jilesen, Director at the Ontario Federation of Agriculture; Ashleigh Weeden, PhD student and Research Assistant at the University of Guelph and Dr Ryan Gibson, Libro Professor in Regional Economic Development at the University of Guelph.

Hub Staff

Unemployment in the economic region of Stratford Bruce Peninsula was 3.7% in 2018, the lowest since the recession over a decade ago and the lowest in the province. While this number is reassuring and described by Huron-Bruce Conservative MP Ben Lobb as a “fully employed community," the panel of experts invited to speak at the Bruce County Museum on Wednesday, March 20, served this statistic with a side caution.

In an event hosted by the Town of Saugeen Shores, the "Let’s Talk: Labour Shortage" panel consisted of Gemma Mendez-Smith, Executive Director of the Four County Labour Market Planning Board; Pat Jilesen, Director at the Ontario Federation of Agriculture; Ashleigh Weeden, PhD student and Research Assistant at the University of Guelph and Dr Ryan Gibson, Libro Professor in Regional Economic Development at the University of Guelph.

While every panel member agreed the low unemployment rate is something to celebrate, they each conveyed their own experiences and strategies to help avoid the negative effects of a tightening labour market. Before the panel opened up to a question period, three local business owners honed in on the current challenges faced in Saugeen Shores and made it clear that labour shortage is already an issue, one that increasingly threatens the local shops and services.

Stephen Harris, owner of Harris Management Group and Ristorante Rosina, reported a 20% loss of staff in his fine dining downtown Port Elgin restaurant. He claimed the biggest obstacles inhibiting local business owners are a lack of affordable housing and a non-existent transit system. Harris said he has resorted to supplying housing options for a number of his employees at 25 to 50% below market value and stressed the severity of the situation.

“If transit doesn’t come shortly, I think this will become a huge problem in the near future," he said.

Similarly, Pier Donnini owner of the Queen’s Bar & Grill, also in Port Elgin, rents out five of the conveniently located apartments above the restaurant to his employees at a below market price. Donnini manages a workforce of 32 and agreed that transit is a significant problem. He believes housing would be available if the appropriate transportation was in place.

Donnini commented on the importance of making his employees feel like they are part of something meaningful, which he feels outweighs salary as the number one motivator to stay at one's job. He witnessed this recently when he introduced a benefits package and one of his longterm employees joked that it’s starting to feel like a “real job." Donnini explained that he perceives labour as a commodity and recognizes the importance of raising wages to keep up with the market.

“I don’t view these things as burdens. Does it mean I have less money in my own personal pocket this month? Yes, but I view it as an investment," said Donnini. "If it secures the viability of my business longterm then it’s kind of worth it.”

Rod Rice, owner of Rice Development Corp and Westlinks development just east of Port Elgin, offered a more optimistic outlook by sharing a successful collaboration between his company and Saugeen District Secondary School where construction students had been brought onsite and, under the supervision from their teacher, worked with the construction team at Westlinks. The payoff was two-fold, said Rice, as it was an invaluable learning experience for the students but also a revelation for Rice. “There is this pool of talent that is here in town if we can persuade them to stay in town," he said, adding his team will be working this year on an internal strategy to keep these skilled trades people within Saugeen Shores.

Next, the panel of experts shared their wisdom and experiences with the audience. They all agreed that these problems are not unique to Saugeen Shores. Weeden urged those present to look to the community's neighbours, see what actions they’re taking and learn what worked and what didn’t work for them. More than once the subject of making jobs meaningful for workers was brought up. They asked to think of the shortage not as jobs to be filled, but as people seeking fulfilling jobs, creating a sense of purpose at the employment level. Building on this notion, but at a regional level, Gibson talked about methods to provide a sense of belonging in the community, whether workers are relocating from urban areas or foreign countries, to make them want to stay.

Jilesen returned to the original comments made by local business owners and reminded listeners that if housing isn't available and adequate transit isn't in place the community can’t succeed in keeping those labourers, no matter how good your marketing plan.

Overall, the panellists were hopeful about relieving the labour shortage. Mendez-Smith was excited to have workforce planning at the forefront of the discussion and Weeden expressed how encouraging it was to see such a diverse audience at the event. “It’s not the typically pale, male and stale group of folks that are usually talking about this issue.”

Cheryl Brine

Event facilitator Cheryl Brine, Agriculture and Rural Economic Development Advisor, Regional Economic Development Branch, OMAFRA.

Pier Donnini

Pier Donnini, owner of the Queen's Bar and Grill, was among the business owners who spoke about labour challenges in Saugeen Shores. 

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