Economic development people on the right track, but they need to tweak their approach

The Grey-Bruce area’s labour market has become big news recently, particularly after reports from the Blue Mountains Economic Development Committee, and a similar report from the county economic development officer to town officials.

Those reports – which are remarkably similar – focus on what they view as a lack of labour in the region, and focus on the three main factors. First, there’s a lack of attainable housing. Second, the absence of a regional transit service hinders labour mobility. Finally, a lack of day-care spaces is potentially keeping parents at home who might otherwise work.

In the parlance of these economic development types, it’s created a perfect storm where employers desperate for workers simply can’t find enough people to fill their jobs.

The economic development figures also suggest that some 18,000 people have left the Grey-Bruce region for hopefully-greener pastures in recent years, further emptying the labour market.

I even saw a reference to that number over the weekend in social media comments on a story in one of the Toronto newspapers.

I applaud the work being done by the economic development departments, as likely all of these are valid limiting factors.

It seems to me the lack of public transit in particular is the factor to focus on. After all, not everyone has a vehicle, and quite a few people don’t have driver’s licenses. I’ve had a number of people tell me anecdotally in recent years that’s a major problem in the former town of Meaford, for one.

Moreover, anyone weighing taking an out-of-town job – even if it’s, say, within a 50-kilometre radius – should be doing the proverbial cost-benefit analysis of whether the job pays enough and offers enough incentives to merit the commute. That means looking at travel time, vehicle maintenance, insurance and fuel, at the least. The cliche is that any work is better than no work, but if you are only breaking even, or worse yet, losing money, that’s not a desirable position.

At one time, Blue Mountain Resort offered a free shuttle for workers, at least in housekeeping, to get to their jobs. I am unclear as to whether that is still happening, but it’s something more employers should look at.

Chapman’s Ice Cream is one industry leader in that field, and has offered free taxi service for workers to and from Owen Sound over the last few years. That’s a smart idea, and a good example of what a company who is desperate for workers does to solve their problems. It’s too bad they haven’t extended it to other communities in this area, at least to my knowledge.

I wouldn’t doubt either that child-care is posing a conundrum for parents who might well like to work, at least part-time. The local waiting lists are substantial. That’ something that’s well-documented.

As for housing costs… well, there’s no doubt there’s a volatile market, especially in The Blue Mountains. That’s something that’s forced many people who work in town to live elsewhere. Nearly 20 years ago, I can remember then Meaford Mayor Wally Reif, a controversial figure if there ever was one, remarking on how he didn’t want to see an economy where Meaford provided the “slave labour” to The Blue Mountains.

Semantics aside, that’s the situation for many people, with housing costs escalating faster than our unseasonable temperatures.

So, the economic development people are far from wrong in what they are saying, but it’s hardly the entire picture either. In fact, it’s a bit of a one-sided approach.

Missing from their analysis to this point, is what steps employers and businesses are taking to improve things on their own, and not looking to municipal and regional governments for solutions.

Faced with a labour shortage, they should be jacking up wages and benefits. They should also be offering better working conditions, and making sure potential employees are aware of it.

I spent the better part of three years working for a newspaper in the Northwest Territories that had perpetual recruiting problems. To entice people, they offered free housing, a staff vehicle, and higher wages. If an employee stayed long enough, the company offered enticements such as travel insurance as well.

That was a pretty good deal, and it’s an example of what desperate employers do when they have a drastic labour shortage.

I’ve had a few informal conversations with some of the economic development people, who tell me that some business owners in the area are beginning to do similar things, particularly with housing. What I haven’t heard yet, though, is whether that’s being advertised to prospective employees and the public.

Then there’s the thorny issue of potential-worker burnout. For instance, there seems to be constant advertising by some of the big fast-food restaurants in several municipalities locally. Even the new $14 an hour minimum wage doesn’t seem to be solving their hiring woes.

To me, that suggests that many of these companies have “burned through” the available labour markets. People know from experience or from word-of-mouth in the community what it’s like to work for these industries and even the promise of more money isn’t making those jobs more desirable.

Many people have the same perspective on jobs in the service and tourism industries. It’s going to take a concerted effort to change that public perspective. That means spending more money on advertising effectively, without making it look too much like a sales pitch.

That’s a clear case where improved working conditions have to be priority one to attract workers. It’s going to take time to accomplish that.

The question of the number of people who could be working but aren’t actively looking needs to be addressed as well. Those numbers tend to fall through the cracks. Many of these people are simply discouraged about the job market, but that’s a fixable problem. I’m guessing this untapped market could go a long ways towards filling that 18,000 deficit of people mentioned in the reports.

I’ve also heard a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence from people that applications and resumes go unanswered at a disturbing rate.

Again, that’s something that’s not indicative of desperate employers. If you’re truly desperate, you would be taking prospective employees who might not have the “proper qualifications” but are capable of learning and training the Hell out of them so they fit in as a productive member.

In a labour shortage such as the economic development people are describing, there’s just not much excuse for inquires from potential employees going unanswered.

Hiring practices, it seems to me; need a kick in the pants to begin thinking a bit more unconventionally

If business in this region start taking some of those steps, and making the public aware of it, it will be a wonderful first step to start solving their labour shortage crisis and giving them more credibility among the public – and local government, for that matter.


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