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Algoma enjoying period of low unemployment

Attraction and retention of workers key for employers
Jonathan Coulman is the executive director of the Algoma Workforce Investment Corp. and says while the Sault is currently enjoying a period of low unemployment, organizations are struggling to find workers to fill their ranks. (Lindsay Kelly photo)

Sault Ste. Marie’s largest employer, Essar Steel Algoma (operating as Algoma), has been under creditor protection since November 2015, and a perception persists that the city is experiencing a high rate of unemployment. But the numbers tell a different story.

“What we’re finding now is we’re actually in a period of low unemployment and fairly high employment compared to our recent history,” noted Jonathan Coulman, executive director of the Algoma Workforce Investment Corp. (AWIC), which compiles data for the workforce across the Algoma region.

In the month of September, the city was supporting 41,000 jobs, which is higher than the 20-year average of 37,000 jobs, he noted. And things are looking up for Essar, too.

The company has been sold, there are positive signs it will soon be out from under creditor protection, and, Coulman noted, the company has been hiring “pretty aggressively” over the last year.

But that doesn’t mean the Sault is without its challenges.

An aging population – the median age of Saultites is 49 – has made for a tighter labour supply, which is leaving many employers scrambling to find workers.

“So really, the key for organizations is attraction, retention and developing their own talent internally,” Coulman said.

“And that goes for the community as well.”

Most employers recognize the need to make the case attractive for potential employees to work there, he said, but small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) don’t always have the resources to dedicate to the effort.

That’s why the AWIC is looking to develop tools that can help SMEs start the process of creating value propositions to address attraction and retention issues in their organizations. Continuous training or education, flexible work hours or an opportunity to advance quickly might appeal more to employees than just salary alone.

One strategy could be something as simple as talking to current employees to find out what they like about working there.

“I think it would be naïve to think that companies and managers aren’t already doing that to some degree, but it’s just putting more of a focus on it,” Coulman said. “It’s just something that people have to get more competitive at again.”

The same approach applies to the community as well, and the Sault has already started the ball rolling with FutureSSM, a strategy that outlines how the city can diversify its economy beyond the steel plant.

With so many pieces to the puzzle and so many stakeholders involved, Coulman believes even incremental steps are beneficial.

“We know that we’re not suddenly going to turn on a tap and thousands of people will come here,” he said. “You can’t lose sight of the retention of people and then developing the talent.”

That’s why education, in particular, plays such an integral role in the process, he said. Programs like the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program and an intensified focus on experiential learning mean that employers are creating deeper connections with students and their parents. The goal is to encourage them to stay in Sault Ste. Marie rather than migrate out of the North for post-secondary education and their careers.

This year in Algoma, local companies participated in Manufacturing Day, an annual event that brings students into manufacturing shops to speak with employers and see what types of jobs are available to them. It’s one of the tools manufacturers can use to strengthen those ties with local youth, Coulman said.

Immigration can also play a role. Both Sault College and Algoma University have seen increased enrolment from international students, so the key will be to encourage graduates to remain in the community, as well as attract newcomers to the Algoma area who are looking for a different pace of life than that found in Toronto or Vancouver.

“We’re competing with every community in Northern Ontario, let alone Canada, let alone North America, let alone Europe, so that’s always going to be a challenge,” Coulman said.

“But I think Canada is an attractive destination and I think we can get to the people (who recognize) the advantages of Northern Ontario communities like Sault Ste. Marie.”