Every Sunday, two vans pick up labourers from Montreal for a four-hour journey northeast to small towns near the border with Maine. There, they work at factories for the week, stay in accommodation partly paid by their employer, and return to Quebec’s largest city on Friday.
“We would really like to hire locally, but we have no choice,” said Sonia Rousseau, head of human resources at René Matériaux Composites, the Sigma Industries Inc. unit that’s been busing the mostly African and Latin American workers to its plastics factories for at least two years. “If we don’t have enough workers, we have to stop the production line, which is something we can’t afford to do.”
Welcome to the reality of the manufacturing industry in Chaudière-Appalaches, a district in the francophone province of Quebec that boasts 3 per cent unemployment -- the lowest in Canada, with a national jobless rate of 6.2 per cent. With the country’s economy growing at the fastest pace in the Group of Seven, and Quebec itself on track to expand the most since 2004, it’s no wonder order books are full. But in this region alongside the St. Lawrence River there aren’t enough local workers interested in blue-collar jobs.
Known as Beauce, the corner of Chaudière-Appalaches where René Matériaux Composites has its factories is a manufacturing powerhouse with a strong entrepreneurial culture. Its member of Parliament, Maxime Bernier, is a libertarian who unsuccessfully ran for the leadership of the Conservative Party this spring. For years, specialized jobs such as welders or electricians have been in extremely high demand, prompting companies to recruit overseas. But even unskilled workers are hard to come by.
“We need able bodies,” Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Leitao said in an interview. “If we do nothing, it will be a big issue.”
Leitao says one answer is more training to help young Quebeckers fill the labor market’s current needs. At a vocational school of Montmagny, 50 miles northeast of Quebec City, students learn to program machine tools or to master welding. Some are sent by employers eager for them to acquire new skills, but even those who start without a job land offers within weeks, according to training counselor André Faucher.
William Bernier, who works part-time at a food processing company and recently joined the 1,800-hour machine-tool program, is hopeful new expertise will open the door to better paid work. “There’s lots of companies looking,’’ the 19-year-old said this week.
Attracting foreign workers often clustered in Montreal to small-town Quebec is another solution. With a jobless rate of 6 percent, the province has little choice but to turn to immigrants as its population ages more rapidly than the U.S., the U.K. and the rest of Canada. The situation is particularly acute in Chaudière-Appalaches, where the median age is 44 -- about two years older than Quebec as a whole.
“Yes there’s economic growth, but there’s also the reality of demographics,” said Chantal Routhier, an economist with Mouvement Desjardins, the province’s largest credit union. “The jobless rate is bound to fall over time.”
Still, there are a lot of positions up for grabs.
Manac Inc., a maker of specialty trailers based in Saint-Georges with about 900 employees in the province, started looking abroad for welders, machine operators and electricians five years ago -- even contracting an agency to find workers as far away as Nicaragua.
As orders pile up, Manac has hired more than 100 people this year. Yet the manufacturer continues to struggle to find unskilled workers, especially for its night and weekend shifts, according to Steve Ceolin, one of its recruiters. “We’re short about 20 people and most of them are untrained laborers,” he said.
'CRYING FOR HELP'
The demand extends beyond manufacturing. Vacant positions range from electrical engineers to nurses and waiters, according to Cassiopée Dubois, who helps companies address shortages at private consultancy La Beauce embauche -- French for Beauce is hiring.
“I have companies calling me and crying for help,” Dubois said. “We need workers everywhere, and immigration is a solution. The key is to integrate people and make them stay.”
That’s the tack taken by CDID Inc., a software maker also based in Saint-Georges, the biggest town in Beauce with a population of 31,000. The company, which plans to add 15 workers over the next four years, took part in a trade fair in Paris this summer and came away with four new computer programmers.
“You should have seen their eyes when we discussed the cost of living, access to home ownership or the crime rate,” said Karine Poulin, CDID’s head of human resources. “We didn’t really have to convince them.’’
Immigration, however, isn’t a miracle solution, according to Routhier, the Desjardins economist. Ultimately, companies will have to boost productivity.
With some jobs taking up to a year to fill, René Matériaux Composites -- which supplies moulded plastic parts to the transport, construction and agricultural industries -- has begun investing in new technology and robotics, according to Rousseau. It’s also establishing a new research and development center in the town of Saint-Ephrem.
Busing workers in “helps us meet our goals for now, but we can’t rely on that in the long term because if tomorrow people stop coming, it will be a problem,” the human resources chief said. “Ultimately we would like to attract more people to move to Beauce, but in the meantime, we are working very hard to increase our productivity. We have to innovate, we have to automate.”
--With assistance from Erik Hertzberg