Features | From Pivot Magazine

Come from away

Atlantic Canada has a new and unexpected problem: a shortage of workers. J.D. Irving has a novel solution. Meet Susan Wilson, its director of immigration.

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Susan Wilson, director of immigration for Atlantic CanadaIn January, New Brunswick-based industrial titan J.D. Irving Ltd. (JDI) made Susan Wilson, formerly its HR director in sawmills and woodlands, its first-ever director of immigration. (Photo by Dan Culberson) 

Atlantic Canada has never been known as an immigration hot spot (at least not for the past century or so). But in the face of growing labour shortages, East Coast employers are starting to look—some for the first time—beyond Canada’s borders. In January, New Brunswick-based industrial titan J.D. Irving Ltd. (JDI) made Susan Wilson, formerly its HR director in sawmills and woodlands, its first-ever director of immigration. She’s tasked with hiring 240 immigrants this year alone, with more in years to come—not temporary workers, but permanent new full-time employees in jobs ranging from long-haul trucking to IT to operating sophisticated high-tech logging equipment. As Maritimers continue to leave rural areas for the cities, JDI’s resource-based enterprises are finding it harder to fill jobs. Matthew Halliday spoke to Wilson about the challenges of attracting newcomers, how they plan to keep them there, and the changing face of Atlantic Canada.

I don’t think many private companies have a role like director of immigration. How did it get started?
I’m one of those people who grew up in the Maritimes, left and then came back. When I returned, I got involved in recruiting in our forestry division, where we’d had a chronic shortage of workers for a long time. We looked to countries with similar skill sets in mechanized forestry: Ukraine, Romania, Eastern Europe. So it started there, but it became obvious this was a growing challenge across the company. 

Where specifically?
Forestry was the first, then in late 2016 we noticed that Sunbury, one of our trucking companies, also started to see it. It’s something that’s gradually occurred over time, due to our own growth and regional demographics and an aging workforce, especially in rural areas. We asked ourselves, should we have a centre of excellence [for international recruitment] that would bridge all the JDI businesses? We work with JDI businesses that need additional workforce pipelines and don’t have experience with recruiting internationally. If a business says, “I want to recruit IT staff from a specific country,” we answer their tactical questions, spend time developing strategies, and work with government and community partners both in finding people and settling them in our communities.

I think a lot of people might be confused about why the region with the country’s highest unemployment rates is also experiencing labour shortages. Can you shed a little light on that?
It’s a good question. Our recruiting strategy is to hire Canadians first, but if we’re going outside the country it’s because we’ve got a skill or a workforce gap we just can’t address locally. There are often fewer people choosing to enter the fields that we need to hire for, like the skilled workers needed in automated forestry, or long-haul trucking. We do a lot of work in high schools and colleges, but there’s less interest among young folks in some of these fields. The generation graduating from school today is looking at those jobs and asking, “Is this attractive to me?” So we need to shift as well, looking at X number of students coming out of school and matching that with our business requirements. It’s complex because we have so many industries. Then layer over that rural and urban—a lot of our operations are rural—and it’s complex. Some people would call it a skill or desirability mismatch. It could also be a specific skill set—in Halifax’s shipyard, there may be specialized design roles, for example.

“Little things are important. there’s nothing quite like meeting someone at the airport for the first time.”

What countries are you focusing on?
SW: It’s very industry- and business-specific. We use as much data as possible to look at the workforce: which countries have the skill sets, as well as people interested in moving to Canada? I’m working with all the JDI businesses to look at what they will need in terms of manufacturing, backroom business services, IT, engineering. We then connect with recruiters, go to job fairs and so on. What we’re finding is that people will go back to their home country and refer others to us. We recently took one of our international hires back to Ukraine, and it had such an impact. [Ukrainians] don’t know us, but he told his story and how he and his family have made a home here. That was heartwarming.

Do newcomers require any additional training?
SW: We haven’t seen that. Our focus is to hire skilled workers with the experience necessary to do the job.

Historically, most immigrants to Canada go to M.T.V.—Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver. That’s begun changing in the past decade, with an increasing proportion heading to small cities. Still, it must be a challenge recruiting people to a region they know nothing about.
SW: It’s true—people don’t know where we are. When you first talk to people, they say, “I need to go to Toronto.” But when you speak to them more, you find out that, a lot of times, people are only aware of a few cities in Canada. Some people will be drawn to those cities, but a lot of people prefer a different kind of community. They just don’t know it exists here. As employers, we have to do our due diligence. What is important to people? Why are they coming? Will they be happy in a rural community or a smaller centre?

What are people asking you about when you travel overseas? 
SW: Most of the questions are around lifestyle, currency and taxation, school systems. Really, they’re trying to figure out what it’s going to be like, and what it will be like for their families. We also spend a lot of time working with under-employed and unemployed people already here, and with international students at colleges and universities. They know what it’s like here already, and so many of them want to stay, but need a way to break into the labour market.

Do most of your hires end up working in small towns?
It’s a mix of urban and rural, which creates different challenges. In Nova Scotia, a lot of people are in Halifax and that area, which is very different for a newcomer than a small community in central New Brunswick, where there aren’t the same services, multicultural associations or established immigrant communities. But as these communities grow—and they really have in the past few years—we have to make sure that we’re connecting people coming in with those existing communities.

“For international hires, especially, we go above and beyond to ensure they have a buddy in their workplace they can contact.”

How do you do that? What kind of on-the-ground package do you provide for newcomers?
Family and household support is the key. We have a customized settlement plan for each family, which might mean, in the first few days, supporting them by answering questions like “Where’s the grocery store?” or pointing them to the activities they’re used to in their country, or addressing their children’s needs in terms of school. It’s also really important to have a single point of contact on our end—a person they can call with questions about Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, wherever they are. For international hires, especially, we go above and beyond to ensure they have a buddy in their workplace they can contact, and we take pains to connect them with existing employees from their home country or community.

Little things are important too. We greet people at the airport with a gift basket, which is something we’re working on upgrading. Honestly, there’s nothing quite like meeting someone at the airport for the first time. Of course, we’re talking about the workforce, demographics and the health of the regional economy, but it’s ultimately about people.

Recent public-opinion polls show that Canadians are now slightly less favourable to immigration than they have been in the past. Are you experiencing any pushback to what you’re doing, especially in smaller communities where residents might not be used to newcomers?
This spring, we participated in a tour of 15 cities in New Brunswick led by the New Brunswick Multicultural Council. We were out there to educate folks who haven’t had that much exposure to newcomers about the need for immigration to drive prosperity and address population challenges. That might open people’s eyes to what not having more immigration could mean for services and tax revenues. That approach is a good start in terms of helping people understand the facts. The number one topic is the economic health of the community. It’s still too early to tell what the long-term economic impact will be. I think that might be best left to economists and politicians at the local level to gauge.

The other thing that came through in the rural discussions were local business people who didn’t have any succession plan, and they were looking for that, and were open to newcomers being part of that.

So you didn’t hear much resistance to the idea of immigration in itself as way of growing the population or workforce?
I can’t speak for everyone in those communities, but it’s not something we heard.

You’ve only been doing this particular job a few months, but what are the early results?
In terms of progress versus our 2018 target to hire more than 200 newcomers, we are trending to fall short, and will be continuing to look to fill those openings as we move into 2019. It is hard to say currently how many people we will bring in via immigration in 2018, as many are still working through the immigration process now.

One story comes to mind. A couple of years ago, when we started doing international recruitment in forestry, we hired a man from Ukraine, just a wonderful person. After working with us, he got his permanent residency and started his own forestry business. So he’s now a small-business owner in New Brunswick and has hired people to come work for him from his country. We’re really aiming for long-term retention. And when people come here, settle their families, integrate into communities, and then become ambassadors back in their own country, it’s just amazing.

J.D. Irving is hardly alone in struggling to find skilled workers. In CPA Canada’s Q2 2018 Business Monitor survey, roughly six of 10 respondents said they had difficulty finding skilled workers and professionals to fill certain jobs. The quarterly survey canvassed the opinions of CPAs in senior leadership roles. The positions they found hardest to fill were skilled trades, skilled/IT positions and middle management. For more, visit cpacanada.ca/businessmonitor.