Chamber of commerce offers cash, gift cards to lure job seekers to northwest community
People who relocate to St-François-de-Madawaska could get $500 in cash, plus other perks
While some areas of New Brunswick are plagued by high unemployment, one region of the province has so many vacant jobs that it's putting cash on the table to lure people to fill them.
The Haut-Madawaska Chamber of Commerce, in the province's northwest, is offering major incentives to attract workers to an area that, according to the mayor, has an unemployment rate of just 2.5 to 2.6 per cent.
People who relocate to St-François-de-Madawaska and stay for a year will get $500 in cash per school-age child, $500 per family member working in a local business, plus another $500 for rent or $1,500 if the family buys or builds a house.
The cash payments can continue annually for three years.
They'll also get $500 in gift cards for groceries, gas and local restaurants immediately after moving.
Employers face recruitment challenges
Cathy Pelletier, the chamber's executive director, says the amounts are meant to get people's attention.
"We're a small region and we're not being talked about a lot," she said. "We have the reputation of living in the woods and there's not a lot of action going on, or a lot of activities.
"We're trying to promote our region — our region is rich, there's a lot of activities, there's hunting, there's fishing, there's all kinds of stuff."
Pelletier says there are 50 jobs that employers can't fill in St-François and 30 retirements expected in the next few years.
The pilot program could be expanded to all of Haut-Madawaska, where Pelletier says there are 250 vacant jobs.
Most of the vacancies are in two local chicken processing plants. One of the plants recently shut down a night shift because there weren't enough employees, she said.
Pelletier said since the program was announced on Monday, she has already received calls from three people who will consider moving.
"It's above our expectations so far," she said.
"I wasn't expecting any phone calls close to the announcement."
St-François is upriver from Edmundston on the St. John River. It's part of the rural community of Haut-Madawaska, a scenic but remote area of the province with a population of 3,750 people.
There is no government money in the program, but Haut-Madawaska rural community mayor Jean-Pierre Ouellette says the municipality may up the ante further.
He says council will consider using new economic development powers the province gave to municipalities on Jan. 1 to offer new arrivals free land or tax breaks on water and sewer bills.
People who receive the incentives must be Canadian citizens and must go to work for a company taking part in the program. Six employers are participating and are paying $100 per current employee to be eligible.
'We have a lot to offer'
Lise Ouellette, the director of human resources at Nadeau Poultry, says it's hard when recruiting workers to get people to take a look at the community in the first place.
"We're 45 minutes from the centre of the region, but we have a lot to offer that people don't know about," she said, including a school, library, grocery store and other amenities. "We're hoping to get people to see that."
Saving the local school is one of the main motives for the aggressive recruitment drive. The district education council considered closing the kindergarten-to-Grade 8 school in 2015, when there were only 80 students enrolled.
The district relented, but the school is eligible for another closure study next year.
Some workers in the two chicken plants commute from nearby Quebec, or from New Brunswick communities as far away as Grand Falls, the mayor says.
Having those employees in municipality would boost the population, the local tax base, and school enrolment, he said.
The desperate bid for workers comes at the same time some seasonal employees in other parts of the province are putting pressure on Ottawa to deal with the so-called "black hole" in the employment insurance program.
The economy has improved enough to reduce the number of weeks people receive EI, creating a longer gap between the end of their benefits and the start of their seasonal jobs.
David Campbell, the former chief economist for the provincial government's Jobs Board, says "a reasonable question" is why the chicken plants don't raise salaries to lure unemployed workers to take the jobs.
But he said that's difficult because Nadeau and Sunnymel are competing with other jurisdictions, including Quebec, where workers in the same sector are not paid well.
"The challenge with food manufacturing is that much of it is hard work and doesn't pay very high wages," he said. "This is not just a New Brunswick issue."
Ouellette says Nadeau Poultry already offers unionized jobs with "competitive salaries" and good benefits.
"It's not that simple for people to move, but there's always something that can be done if they get in touch with us."