Perhaps the Answer to Our Skills Gap is Closer Than we Think

August 21, 2017 - According to the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, 82 percent of their members who reported attempting to hire a new employee during a six month period in 2016 had challenges in doing so. The number one challenge reported was the inability to find someone with suitable qualifications. This finding aligns with previous analysis released by the Chamber and with the larger scale work of people like Rick Miner, author of The Great Canadian Skills Mismatch: People without Jobs, Jobs Without People.

The Chamber has proposed a list of ten solutions. They suggest, among other things, more support for small and medium size businesses to train staff on site through experiential learning (apprenticeships as an example). They urge greater investment by government on programs making it cheaper and easier for employers to find good candidates. They also want expanded efforts to help business identify and access existing government programs that already help job seekers add new skills to make them more attractive in the actual job market (the jobs that ARE here).

These are mostly good ideas and they have the dual advantage of having been tried before and aligning nicely with existing government intentions. Others are trying to be a tiny bit more out of the box. Well, more precisely, they are digging a little deeper into the past and suggesting we try another old idea that had good results.

Thirty-two communities from Northwestern Ontario have banded together to launch an ad campaign in the Greater Toronto Area. Recognizing that there is a labour pool in the GTA with the skills employers in the Northwest need, these communities are making a pitch for these women and men to “come Northwest”. This pitch highlights a comparatively low cost of living, shorter commute times, cheaper housing, competitive salaries in many occupations (yes really), and of course, a slower pace of life. This campaign is an interesting complement to the Chamber’s approach. We can reduce the number of skilled workers we need to recreate by helping those we have already invested in to find their future in communities where they are needed.

A paper just published by the Centre for the Great Lakes Region (CGLR), with the support of Northern Policy Institute, takes this idea one step further. It looks not at the pool of unemployed and high/intermediate skilled labour being underused in Canada, but the even larger pool south of the border. The seamless movement of labour across international borders is the norm in most other parts of the world. North America and the Caribbean are the striking exceptions to that trend.

According to J.D. Snyder, the author of No Time to Impede Labour Mobility; “The majority of the international migrants originating from Asia (60 per cent, or 62 million persons), Europe (66 per cent, or 40 million), Oceania (59 per cent, or 1 million) and Africa (52 per cent, or 18 million) live in another country of their major area of origin. In contrast, the majority of international migrants born in Latin America and the Caribbean (84 per cent, or 32 million) and Northern America (73 per cent, or 3 million) reside in a country outside their major area of birth.”

North Americans, surprisingly enough, do not emigrate to other parts of their continent at the same levels as the rest of the world does. This despite a remarkably high level of shared language, shared culture, and common history. For too long we have been concerned about a “brain drain”, ignoring all the while the benefits the rest of the world has been receiving, to borrow a phrase from some of my old East Coast Connections, via “brain circulation”.

As the CGLR piece demonstrates, we need to reach beyond our regions, beyond our province, and indeed beyond our national borders to address this pressing skills gap. To help Canadian employers find the skilled workers they need, even if they come from Michigan or Maine, and to help skilled Canadian workers find their future, be that in Sudbury, or Chicago.


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Charles Cirtwill is President and CEO of Northern Policy Institute, an independent social and economic think tank based here in Northern Ontario. First published in Northern Ontario Business August 2017.

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