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Foreign francophone workers filling need in Sudbury shops

Robert Brouillette shakes his head in disbelief when recalling the challenges he’s faced while trying to retain employees at his family’s Sudbury business.
Destination Canada
Prospective workers attended Destination Canada in Paris to learn about employment opportunities in Canada.

Robert Brouillette shakes his head in disbelief when recalling the challenges he’s faced while trying to retain employees at his family’s Sudbury business. Specializing in custom welding projects for mining and other industries, City Welding has been in business for 40 years, but the last few have been especially challenging.

He just can’t get employees willing to work.

“I had a guy say he’s going out to his truck to get something, and he packs his bags and leaves,” Brouillette said incredulously. ”I look around and he’s gone.”

Frustrated by workers who didn’t show up on time, were lured away by the competition, or simply disappeared without notice, Brouillette began looking elsewhere for an alternative. In Destination Canada, he found an answer.

An initiative of the federal government, the annual overseas job fair matches foreign, francophone workers with Canadian small business owners who are seeking to add to their workforce.

At its inception 10 years ago, the program sent government representatives abroad to explore the foreign worker market, but within the last few years, business owners have made the trip, enabling them to interview and test potential employees on site for suitability to their companies.

It’s an especially good opportunity for Northern Ontarians to boost the profile of the North overseas, where Canada is best known by “MTV” Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

Brouillette, who also holds a law degree, made his first trip to Tunisia last year, where he interviewed prospective workers and put them through their welding paces. The result was a welcome surprise.

“In Europe, they get into the training schools at 15 instead of 17,” he said. “They’re encouraged to get out into the market and start working, so the level of maturity and responsibility is higher than in Canada. Someone 28 already has 10 or 12 years of experience.”

To qualify for the program, Canadian businesses are thoroughly researched and must demonstrate that they can’t fill a vacancy at their company. The government covers the cost of their trip, arranging interviews with candidates who have made the shortlist.

Successful candidates are required to sign a contract for up to three years, and the visa granted them is applicable only for the company that hires them—they can be sent home if they don’t meet expectations, try to get a job elsewhere, or enrol in school instead.

Since his initial experience, Brouillette has added to his staff 11 foreign workers—from Romania, the Philippines and Tunisia—and he has been consistently impressed by their strong work ethic, loyalty and flexibility.

Brouillette was so pleased with the results of the program he passed on the word to other business owners in the city. This past November, he returned for Destination Canada 2011 with five other business owners in tow.

Over 12 days, they travelled to Paris, Brussels and Tunisia to meet with potential employees.

Brouillette’s experience, it turned out, was not isolated. Trevor Gamache, who operates Crowe’s Mobile, has been advertising for mechanics on the online federal Job Bank steadily for two years. But his search had gone unfulfilled.

Gamache has been disappointed with the quality of workers who apply: they quit after an hour on the job, or balked at doing dirty, hands-on work. He had to move payday to Monday because employees were leaving after collecting a paycheque on Friday afternoon, never to return.

“I’m a hostage in my own shop,” Gamache said. “I have a guy who shows up at 8:30 every day for an 8 a.m. shift. I keep asking him to show up on time. He knows he can’t be fired because I need him to do the work.”

Breaking down on the side of the road may be an inconvenience for Gamache’s customers, but Lisette Wirta’s clients are much more vulnerable. Her business, Home Instead, offers personal home care services to older adults. When her workers don’t show up for a shift, her clients may sit in soiled diapers or go without a meal.

Yet, she’s had workers leave early on a Friday afternoon to get a jump on the weekend, leaving her clients in the lurch.

“These are seniors in need; they’re vulnerable people,” Wirta said. “I’d fire her, but who’s going to replace all her shifts? I can’t fire anybody. I have to be grateful for what they do do.”

Wirta has advertised in Toronto, where there is an abundance of personal support workers seeking employment, but initial expressions of interest soon fizzle when job seekers realize they have to move north for the position. Workers from Quebec are equally unwilling to relocate.

The situation has actually reached crisis proportions for Wirta, who said she’d like to expand her business, but can’t take on any new clients because she doesn’t have the workers to service them.

“I’ve got 38 girls, but I could use 100,” she said. “You can’t grow your company if you can’t hire the staff.”

She’s since looked to Jamaica for help, and has hired several women from that country, who will be joining her firm shortly.

Immigration seems like a solution, but business owners are getting flak here at home. Accused of “stealing” jobs from Canadians, it’s been suggested they’re only going overseas to get cheap labour.

Not true, said Monique Forsyth, co-owner of Northern Voice & Data, who once had an employee give two hours’ notice before walking out the door for good. Destination Canada requires that prospective employers follow certain criteria to qualify for the program, including paying foreign workers the average wage for that position in the region.

“When I hire people, I look at it in such a way that they’re looking towards me to make sure that their mortgage is paid, their staples are taken care of and they’re fed,” Forsyth said. “When I hire someone, I make sure that it’s somebody that will be the proper person for the job.”

Forsyth said she and other business owners are not only fulfilling their own needs, but they’re bringing to Canada dedicated, skilled workers who are ready and willing to work, with the additional benefit of expanding the cultural diversity of the city.

Gamache agrees that bringing foreign workers to Canada is a big responsibility. But it’s worth it to find the right person for the job.

“I’ll pay top dollar for a guy who’s going to do top work, who’s going to show up on time,” Gamache said. “All I ask for you to do is come in, do your job on time, do your job the best you can do, and be safe. Do it every day for five days in a row, and at the end you get paid. I’m not asking for miracles.”

Brouillette fears if the competition for skilled workers escalates further, local businesses will price themselves out of labour and be forced to find cheaper manufacturing sources, like China.

To avoid that, Brouillette would like to see more services put into place that support immigrants, to boost retention and encourage them to stay. Hiring foreign workers is no panacea, “but it allows you to breathe,” he said.

Confirmation that he was following the right path came last Christmas when one of his Romanian workers approached him to thank him for bringing him to Canada where his granddaughter had been born three years earlier.

“People are grateful,” Brouillette said. “That’s one of my biggest things that I’ve been able to do that I’ve felt really good about over the last five years.”