Good afternoon. I'm Gemma Mendez-Smith and I'm the executive director with the Four County Labour Market Planning Board.
We are part of a network of 26 workforce planning boards across Ontario. These boards conduct localized research and actively engage organizations and community partners in local labour market projects.
Each board is as individual as the community it serves. Each addresses labour market issues in its own way, as all communities have their own priorities. As a network, Ontario's workforce planning boards also work together to address labour market issues from a province-wide perspective.
The Four County Labour Market Planning Board serves Bruce, Grey, Huron and Perth counties. This region has been consistently experiencing a low unemployment rate over the last five years. In 2018 the economic region saw its lowest unemployment rate, at 3.7%. In fact, this was the lowest unemployment rate for any economic region in Ontario in the last decade. It is no wonder that our 2019 EmployerOne survey results saw that 72% of responding employers shared that they had hard-to-fill positions, with 37% trying to fill positions for over one year.
To address the challenge of a constricted labour market, the first inclination is to say we need to attract more people. While this is easy to say, it is not easy to accomplish.
First, similar labour market challenges exist across Ontario, so hundreds of communities, large and small, are trying to attract candidates from a finite pool of workers. Second, attracting people is a multi-dimensional undertaking involving housing, transportation, social supports and other things. A plan that focuses on attraction would need to involve a range of services within the region. Third, as it currently stands, Bruce, Grey, Huron and Perth counties already attract thousands of people on an annual basis, though lose a similar number to outmigration, which suggests that significantly increasing the number of residents is not easily achievable.
Our focus, therefore, is on how we engage in labour force development activities through immigration. Even within a constricted labour market, there are ways to increase the supply and quality of the workforce.
This leads me to highlight some of the gaps that our region is experiencing as it relates to settlement services.
At a recent healthy communities partnership meeting, we discussed the need for English as a second language services to be readily available to assist newcomers, including refugees, to build skills in our vibrant job market. This critical service is offered through a volunteer system, which cannot adequately support the flexibility needed to be engaged in the workforce, as well as increase language skills.
Connected to ESL for adults is the gap that exists within schools to support children's integration into the learning environment. To grow our workforce through immigration, we find that parents will decide to stay in a community where settlement services are readily available to help their children. If these services are not available in rural communities, then attracting and retaining this demographic is highly problematic. Communication with peers is imperative for social integration into settlement communities, and if the appropriate levels of supports are not in place, this can lead to isolation and mental health challenges that weigh heavy on young minds.
Settling in rural communities often requires that immigrants separate from their ethnocultural group which, if not addressed through adequate, accessible and appropriate settlement services, can lead to significant feelings of isolation.
Additionally, information and orientation sessions, needs assessments and referrals are integral to settlement in a new community. Newcomers need to learn a whole new way of doing things. For example, how to obtain a social insurance number, where to receive mail, how to set up a bank account, and where they can volunteer in their new community.
I would like to suggest a few recommendations to improve settlement services in rural communities. First, I would like to point out that we cannot look at settlement services as something to supply after people have moved to the area. Instead, it must be a proactive approach in the area as immigrants will use this information to make decisions about where they will move to and where they will grow their new roots.
Settlement service workers would be an asset to rural communities as they are available to serve newcomers immediately and expedite their integration. Settlement workers in our schools, SWIS, will be beneficial to integrate children, as parents often take cues from the well-being of their children. Adults and children alike require these integration services to fully invest in a community.
Another recommendation would be to have more funding for support by settlement service providers and for agencies to train volunteers to be ambassadors for integration, for example, a host family that will ensure that the new family joins a network of local people who will help them find work, enter their children into sports and build a strong social connection.
Knowing how best to support a newcomer family in the community will help support retention in that community and definitely grow the workforce in rural areas.
Technology can be used in a supportive context for settlement services through virtual settlement services. Technology exists in schools and other community services. Almost all newcomers have a smart phone and access to the Internet through libraries and other municipal linkages. While this is not to replace direct interactions, utilizing technology that already exists can aid in enhancing and extending settlement services and will prove to be beneficial in rural Canada.
Isolation is a prevalent factor in rural communities, and we have seen people leave after being there for a very short time because of it. We need to provide more activities that connect newcomers with other community members. Those will go a long way to creating personal bonds to this new community. To aid in this, I recommend making certain that the community connection program is part of settlement services for all rural areas. The social, cultural and professional interactions and connections between newcomers and the community that this program encourages are crucial to keeping immigrants, including refugees, engaged in the community.
Transportation is another factor affecting the newcomer workforce in rural areas. Ensuring that this critical service is available through funding for the settlement service program is vitally important for immigrants to connect in the community for work, training and general integration. For example, there is no public transportation available in our area, and taxis are very expensive. Newcomers rarely live within the distance of employment opportunities, so supports to help adults get their driver's licence would be a huge benefit.
I would like to highlight that having services offered in rural communities is a positive way forward. Itinerant services, while offering a functional alternative in settlement services in rural areas, are not always ideal as they are itinerant and less flexible and may not be timely.