A transport company with dozens of trucks sitting idle. A McDonald's willing to pay well above minimum wage. A manufacturer forced to turn down a lucrative contract.

Tales like these are emerging from across Quebec as the province grapples with a growing labour crunch.

"This is the kind of thing we will see more and more of, unfortunately," said Jean-Guy Côté, associate director of the Institut du Québec, a public policy think tank. 

"This is a new reality for the last year."

Quebec has, in a sense, become a victim of its own success.

With the economy chugging along, the unemployment rate has in recent months been hovering around six per cent, nearly the lowest it's been since Statistics Canada began keeping track in 1976.

The rate dropped even further last month, to 5.4 per cent, with 16,200 more jobs created, according to numbers released last Friday.

Quebec now has the lowest unemployment rate in Canada, tied with Manitoba. And yet employers are concerned.

Take, for example, Benny & Co., an expanding rotisserie chicken chain in Montreal. It hopes to hire 350 workers over the next year. 

But Nicolas Filiatrault, the company's chief financial officer, said it will be a challenge to fill the positions. "Like everybody else in the business, it's hard to get employees." 

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Increase immigration, report suggests

The historic shortage is being caused by the combination of economic growth and an aging population leaving the labour market, Côté said. It's likely to be a continuing problem in the years to come, as the province's workforce gets even older.

Côté was one of the authors of an Institut du Québec study published last month that urged Quebec to increase its immigration quotas to counter the labour shortage.

Nathalie Joyal

Nathalie Joyal, sales director of Sixpro, says the company has struggled to find staff. (Frank Desoer/Radio-Canada)

It also recommended policies to ensure women stay in the workforce longer.

The current birth rate of 1.7 children per woman and 50,000 new immigrants a year is "insufficient" to maintain the current labour pool, the report said.

Quebec's GDP growth is likely to decline slightly next year, if only because there's "no more room for growth," given the lack of available labour, Côté said.

Regions struggle to attract workers

The labour shortage is already starting to have an effect, particularly in the regions outside Montreal.

Earlier this year, a fast food joint in Lévis, Que., was forced to close its doors due to lack of staff, and a McDonald's franchise in Val-d'Or raised its starting wage to $13/hour after having to temporarily shut down.

Sixpro, a manufacturing company near Drummondville, Que., also has difficulty recruiting. Sales director Nathalie Joyal said the firm attends job fairs in order to lure immigrants from Montreal.

"The future of our business is in danger because of a lack of sufficient manpower," Joyal said.

Canimex

A poster advertisers the need for workers at Canimex, a manufacturing company in Drummondville. (Frank Desoer/Radio-Canada)

Denis Coderre, the owner of SGT 2000, a trucking company in Saint-Germain-de-Grantham, Que., said 40 of his 250 trucks are sitting unused because he can't find anyone to drive them.

He has been forced to turn down contracts and growth of his business slowed in 2017. "I talk to a lot of transport companies and they are having the same problems," he said.

Identity vs. new arrivals

At Quebec's National Assembly, however, debate has centred around an idea that won't have an effect for another two decades: boosting the province's low birth rate.

François Legault's Coalition Avenir Quebec, which is leading in the polls, recently pledged to give families financial incentives to have more children and eliminate fees for IVF fertility treatment.

"The size of the Quebec population is important for the defence of its identity, if not only because of the demographic weight Quebecers would have within Canada," Legault said.

QUEBEC HOLIDAY GREETINGS 20161209

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, left, shakes hand with Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader Francois Legault as Parti Quebecois Leader Jean-Francois Lisee, centre looks on. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The CAQ maintains Quebec should cut back the current number of immigrants from 50,000 to 40,000 a year to ensure they are properly integrated, citing the high unemployment rate among new arrivals.

Premier Philippe Couillard, for his part, is in favour of increasing the number of immigrants, but wants to ensure it's done in an effective way.

Yves-Thomas Dorval, head of Quebec's employers council, le Conseil du patronat du Québec, said his organization urged the province to take action a year ago.

The political debate around identity and immigration is misguided, he added. ​"Immigrants should be viewed as an opportunity, not as a trap."

With files from Simon Nakonechny, Jonathan Montpetit and Radio-Canada's Marie-Pier Bouchard