Local employers are becoming “increasingly desperate” in their search for workers and that’s especially the case for those looking to fill entry-level positions, says the Four County Labour Market Planning Board.
Executive director Gemma Mendez-Smith told Grey County council Thursday that the top barriers preventing potential employees from applying for or accepting those jobs are lack of transportation, child care and affordable housing.
“Across rural communities those would be the biggest challenges that we need to address,” she said in an interview.
“When we have our smaller communities where people can find affordable housing then transportation becomes an issue. Let’s say the jobs are in Owen Sound, but I have to live somewhere else, how do I get there?
“So those are the pieces that we’re teaching people how to manage, but also get the communities thinking about how do we make sure that housing is affordable where people need to be so that they can get to work.”
Mendez-Smith said reducing those barriers might require companies to think outside the box.
“We’re not asking employers necessarily to pay $20 an hour for a general labourer job, but what we’re saying is, how do we consider what else we might do?” she said.
Some employers have begun offering a busing or shuttle service to help their employees get to work, she said. Perhaps allowing job-sharing would help people who cannot work full-time, she added.
Grey County Warden Selwyn Hicks also suggested that innovative solutions might be required to address the affordable housing, transportation and child care barriers.
“I think there are a multitude of things we can look at,” he said.
One idea would be to consider removing the barriers preventing people from living in tiny homes as a way to address the lack of affordable housing, he said, or exploring the idea of allowing adults to ride school buses to get to work to help the transportation piece.
“If you live in Toronto, your kids go to school on the TTC. They’re on a bus with adults. But for some reason, in rural communities, we get uptight when somebody suggests that maybe there could be uses for school buses beyond schools,” he said, noting buses now have cameras on board to improve safety.
Mendez-Smith visited Bruce and Grey councils this month to discuss the most recent Local Labour Market Plan, created by the Four County Labour Market Planning Board, which develops labour market strategies for Bruce-Grey-Huron-Perth.
The plan says the region is experiencing a substantial shrinking of its labour force and has an “extremely low” unemployment rate, which has been below the Ontario average for well over a decade.
However, it says there are still thousands of people unemployed in the four counties – about 6,110 in 2018 – and those people “are the most logical pool on which to draw” to grow the labour force.
It also notes the region’s job participation rates are lower than the provincial average for both the 45 to 54 age group and people aged 55 to 64.
Meanwhile, the planning board’s most recent EmployerOne survey found that nearly 60 per cent of employers had difficulty filling at least one position in 2017 – a significant increase over 2016 – and considerably more employers last year reported spending more than one year trying to hire employees for hard-to-fill positions.
The top reason positions were hard to fill, the survey revealed, was not enough applicants, followed by lack of qualifications.
Mendez-Smith said employers reported that entry-level, lower-income positions – like those in tourism or hospitality, restaurants and some health care jobs such as personal support workers and dietary aides – are hardest to fill.
The planning board found that the top competencies employers are looking for when trying to hire for the hard-to-fill positions are work ethic, dedication and dependability. Those qualities rank higher than having the technical skills for the job.
“The message is the soft skills – those key behavioural and attitudinal skills – are so key to employers that they are willing to accept people into jobs that have demonstrated those key skills and they will train for the technical pieces,” she said.
Francesca Dobbyn, executive director of the United Way of Bruce Grey, said her experience has also shown that lack of transportation options, affordable housing and child care opportunities are top barriers for people who want to enter the local labour market.
“Transportation would be probably the Number 1,” she said.
“Where there’s affordable housing is not where the jobs are and where the jobs are, there is no affordable housing.
“Child care is a challenge because all the formal child care is done between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. and if you are a shift worker or you’re a retail worker and you need to work evenings, you can’t get child care. And the other piece of child care is affordability; if you do not have a subsidy and you’re a minimum wage worker, you can’t afford child care.”
Dobbyn said employers can help to remove the barriers by paying their low-income employees more – which would help the workers afford their own transportation and child care – or adding incentives like free transportation to and from work or on-site child care.
Hicks noted the county has and will continue to undertake initiatives to increase transportation options, affordable housing and childcare spaces in Grey.
For example, it has supported transportation pilot programs and affordable housing builds in recent years.
At Thursday’s committee of the whole meeting, council approved loaning the Owen Sound Housing Company $330,000 to assist with the next phase of its Odawa Heights affordable housing project and supported in principle a plan by Grey Highlands to amend its official plan and zoning bylaw to use a portion of the Markdale CP Rail Trail parking lot – across from Chapman’s Ice Cream – for a future affordable housing build.
“The housing piece is extremely important and you’ll hear that theme coming out just about everywhere. And it’s nice to see that already you’re seeing some proposals coming forward to address housing,” he said.
The province is looking to reduce some regulations related to child care, he said, which could help to increase spaces locally. The county will also be pushing the province to continue to support regional transportation projects in Grey, he added.