Baker looks beyond border for staff as Manitobans find more reasons to celebrate
Pandemic affected flow of arrivals, leaving some businesses rethinking how to lure employees
As purveyors of pastries, Janette Jajalla and her staff are skilled at baking the perfect cake to mark a big celebration — and increasingly Winnipeggers, freed from some pandemic restrictions, are finding reasons to celebrate.
But the Filipino baker says her shop, Baker's Bowl Bakeshop, cannot rise to the occasion as Manitoba's economy strives to rebound 20 months into the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her local call-out for a specialist in making elaborate tiered cakes, some inspired by Filipino flavours, has come up empty.
"The demand of skills that I need for this product is kind of high, so I have to make sure I get someone who's really got the passion, the skills," she said.
She's looking to Manitoba's provincial nominee program — one of the first Canadian experiments in matching foreign workers with specific job openings — to help her business expand.
Jajalla isn't alone in trying to sponsor a new arrival to fill a position.
Prime minister's call
New Premier Heather Stefanson has made expanding the provincial nominee program one of her early priorities in office.
Her other priorities were, in many ways, expected — like rebuilding the post-pandemic economy, slashing the surgery backlog and prioritizing reconciliation with Indigenous people.
Manitoba has lobbied its federal counterparts to allow the province to accept more nominees for years, and Stefanson raised it in her first call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Her decision to elevate a longstanding provincial ask as one of her top goals was somewhat unexpected.
"That tells me she's listening and that she understands our economic need right now," said Bram Strain, president and CEO of the Business Council of Manitoba.
Manitoba's provincial nominee program, which started in the late 1990s, is a fast-track immigration option, allowing provinces and territories to nominate people with needed skills, education and work experience to move to their specific area of the country.
Each jurisdiction has its own criteria. A job offer from an employer benefits a candidate's application.
Manitoba has benefited greatly from the program, as federal immigration streams usually help large metropolitan cities, but some nominees had their entries delayed.
Travel restrictions and delayed federal processing times stemming from the pandemic led to a 44 per cent drop in the number of provincial nominees and their family members who settled in Manitoba in 2020 (5,835 compared to the average of 10,458 over the previous four years).
Having thousands fewer arrivals has left jobs unfilled, Strain said.
"We need workers. We need professionals. We need skilled employees. We need entry-level employees … from top to bottom," he said.
Focus on jobs
The federal ceiling has risen from 5,500 nominee applications in 2016 to 6,275 this year, which excludes a spouse and any dependants. Since the Progressive Conservatives were elected five years ago, Manitoba has responded by issuing more nominations on a nearly annual basis — 2020's total was record-breaking — while deliberately choosing to prioritize those candidates with a job lined up.
The need for increased immigration has been amplified as the labour force ages and some people move away.
Business groups have floated the idea of Manitoba accepting another 2,000 nominees annually, Strain said.
A University of Winnipeg economist said it's in the province's interest to persuade the federal government to raise the ceiling, but Manitoba needs to make a convincing case.
"Ontario's lobbying for nominees as well, and so are other provinces, so it's going to be a competition across provinces in terms of who gets what," said Manish Pandey, a professor who has studied the provincial nominee program in Canada.
Pandey said the delayed arrival of newcomers has impacted the economy in the short term. Businesses must also adapt to workers who left low-paying occupations, often in the service industry, and found positions with higher wages, he said.
In Steinbach, Man., the competition for new workers is stiff, said Jon Sawatzky, director of product and marketing at Loewen Windows and Doors, one of the city's largest employers.
Growing companies are competing for the same workforce, which has prompted Loewen to boost wages and promote a four-day work week for manufacturing staff, Sawatzky said.
"Things have to be more competitive, because everybody's looking for the same type of employee," he said, adding the company supports the province's efforts to boost immigration.
At her bakery, Jajalla is looking forward to inviting someone to Canada through the same nomination program that got her family to Winnipeg a decade ago.
"It's like kindness begets kindness, isn't it?" she said.
"The opportunity was open to us. We're trying to open up an opportunity, too, by getting a provincial nominee in our business."
They've already extended one opening to her brother, Christopher Navarro.
After arriving in Winnipeg on a work permit last year, he got approved through the nominee program and is now seeking permanent resident status to bring over his wife and three children.
He learned how to be a cake designer working with Jajalla's husband and business co-owner, Ciriaco Jajalla Jr., more than a decade ago in Saudi Arabia. They are both in the same kitchen on St. James Street in Winnipeg, crafting cakes and other baked goodies like pandesal and mamon.
"It's very meaningful to me" to be here, Navarro said. "I'm not thinking about my future anymore. I'm thinking about my kids because everything that I'm doing right now is for them."
Stefanson's office wouldn't answer how it wants to improve the provincial nominee program. The federal government declined to say if it would entertain Manitoba's requests.