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Atlantic Canada labour shortage hurting food, retail sectors: report

Shortage linked to retiring baby boomers, low immigrant retention

2 min read
caption A retail employee works a cash register.
Kathleen Jones

The number of people working in Atlantic Canada has dropped, and the gaps are especially bad in low-skill sectors like food and retail, according to a new report by the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council.

Overall, there are 30,700 fewer workers in Atlantic region in 2018 than 2012, according to the report, released Wednesday. Nova Scotia had a drop of 2.1 per cent, while Newfoundland and Labrador experienced the largest drop at 4.6 per cent. Newfoundland attributed the loss to a lack of construction work, which caused workers to leave the province.

The labour shortage in the provinces is largely due to baby boomers retiring, the report says. Patrick Brannon, director of major projects at the economic council, said the shortage will only get worse in the next 10 years, as more workers retire.

Small businesses affected

Small business owners could be the group most affected by labour shortage, said Jordi Morgan, vice-president of the Atlantic wing of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses.

The number of high-skilled workers has increased, said Morgan, but the number of low-skilled workers has decreased. As a result, business owners have to take on the work of several employees. This means longer hours, more stress and less time for a social life. Small businesses also may find it hard to grow, if they can’t find enough workers.

“That acts as a depressant, or something that is retarding growth, in the small business sector,” Morgan said.

The federation has made recommendations to the Nova Scotia government that could help deal with the shortage. One recommendation is to recognize what Morgan calls “on-the-job training.” This is when employees are given training while at work which is recognized through something such as a tax credit. This would make on-the-job training equal to the training employees get from a specific certification, which is often eligible for a tax credit.

The idea, Morgan said, is that a tax credit might help small businesses financially.

Immigration as a solution

Even though immigration has gone up in the Atlantic provinces in recent years, the report noted the provinces have trouble retaining immigrants. The retention rates between 2011 and 2016 ranged from 16 per cent in Prince Edward Island to six per cent in Nova Scotia. This is significantly lower than the 90 per cent average in Ontario and B.C.

The 2014 Ivany Report, commissioned and written by former vice-chancellor of Acadia University Ray Ivany and four others, identified immigration as “essential” to growing Nova Scotia’s economy.

Immigration, according to the economic council’s report, isn’t solving the labour shortage on its own. Morgan said low-skilled workers have a harder time getting permanent residency status, so there are even fewer people filling those jobs.

“When we hear about people who are lower-skilled workers coming in and taking Canadians’ jobs, that’s completely false. That doesn’t happen,” Morgan said.

The economic council’s report said factors other than immigration need to be considered. These include recruiting underrepresented groups, such as young Indigenous people, into the workforce and investing in technology, such as automated cash registers, for larger businesses without low-skilled employees.

The economic council is developing its own demographic projections that will be used to clarify changes being made in Atlantic Canada’s labour force.

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