Alberta town looks to immigration to help ease labour shortage

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On any given day, Roy’s Place in Claresholm, Alta., is packed with customers hoping to grab a quick bite to eat.

The restaurant has been open for 12 years and serves roughly 3,000 orders of food weekly, which has kept the 22 full-time and part-time workers on staff busy.

But lately, the restaurant has had to close its doors some days due to staff shortages.

“When you’re in a position where you’re actually losing revenue, just simply because you can’t give the proper service requirements, it’s a tough decision every day that we do it,” Roy’s Place owner Kieth Carlson said. “We actually shut down on Tuesday because we had a couple of staff call in sick — the labour pool in a small community is fairly shallow.”

Carlson estimated that he would need eight more employees for his restaurant to operate at full capacity, seven days a week.

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“When you’re open from seven in the morning until nine at night, you’re basically running three separate shifts seven days a week, and you’ve got four service staff in the restaurant on each shift and four to five in the kitchen — it adds up,” Carlson said.

Carlson also sits on Claresholm town council.  On Thursday, he and his colleagues, along with other town officials, took part in training sessions with federal representatives for the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot (RNIP).

The RNIP is a program that helps rural communities like Claresholm attract skilled foreign workers to meet their market demand.

READ MORE: Canada’s low unemployment rate boosts demand for temporary foreign workers

Last spring, Claresholm was one of 11 communities across Canada selected by the federal government to participate in the program.

“Whether it’s health care, food and dining, truck driving, construction [or] customer service, there is a challenge in this community to fill the jobs,” said Brady Schnell, the Town of Claresholm’s economic development officer.

“I think rural communities all over rural Alberta have experienced that. I don’t think Claresholm is unique in any way, but certainly we did the work to identify it and we want to address it.”

Schnell said many businesses in the community — not just in the service industry — are operating at a less-than-optimal capacity.

Applicants that qualify will be able to get jobs across several industries, including trades, the service industry, health care and trucking.

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“Applicants have to meet a series of criteria relating to their skill-set, their language ability, their finances and a number of other criteria,” Schnell said. “If they meet that, they can be eligible for a job in Claresholm.

“We’re doing the same scrutiny with the employers too; we want employers that are going to be prepared and able to offer full-time and meaningful employment.”

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Schnell said qualified applicants will have to secure a job offer, and if they are recommended by the selection committee, they would be eligible to apply for permanent residency.

According to the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS), attracting and retaining immigrants in smaller communities has always been a challenge for immigration organizations across the country.

CCIS CEO Fariborz Birjandian said the challenge of immigration to smaller communities is due to three factors: many immigrants are relocating from large urban centres in their country of origin, the opportunities being offered in those communities and unfamiliarity with the smaller centres.

“I remember even Calgary 20 years ago — or 10 years ago — was quite unknown. We used to get a fraction of immigrants coming to Calgary,” Birjandian said. “It took some time for Calgary [to] become more prominent among immigrants [and to] develop that critical mass.”

Birjandian pointed to Brooks as a community that slowly developed its immigration population over time, with its growing Somalian population.

READ MORE: Why immigration policy means so much to the people of Brooks, Alta.

“Once people know there is an opportunity out there, and when they get in and find a welcoming environment, I think 90 per cent of the work is done,” Birjandian said. “The good news is communities are realizing that they need to do some work to make the place more attractive for people to go and look at and settle, and obviously make sure the integration happens so they can settle.”

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At the provincial level, the UCP government held consultations this fall to help develop what’s being called the Alberta Advantage Immigration Strategy. The recently released provincial budget included $2.5 million to increase the recognition of foreign qualifications.

“Alberta Labour and Immigration is developing a flexible new immigration strategy that will better reflect Alberta’s economic needs by attracting and supporting skilled newcomers to help grow the economy and fill labour and skills shortages,” Alberta Labour and Immigration press secretary Brittany Baltimore said in a statement to Global News. “We will continue to work with industry experts, businesses, municipalities and organizations to ensure new programs and initiatives are balanced and support newcomers, job creators and Albertans.”

Town officials in Claresholm are holding an open house on Nov. 9 to discuss RNIP with the community and businesses interested in participating in the program.

According to town officials, RNIP is set to roll out in Claresholm in January 2020 and will last for three years.

“We are a small community, we have a close-knit group of people and good communication,” Schnell said. “I think there’s a good advantage here for Claresholm.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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