Sudbury

How is northern Ontario weathering the 'Great Resignation'?

Although the ‘Great Resignation’ which has gripped other sectors hasn’t quite materialized in northern Ontario, the mining and mine supply industry will be facing its own serious labour issues in the coming years, local analysts say.

New technology, employee retention 2 elements to keep eye on as economy adjusts to changes in labour market

Industry observers expect the mining related supply industries to face labour shortages in the coming years. (Shutterstock)

Although the 'Great Resignation' which has gripped other sectors hasn't quite materialized in northern Ontario, the mining and mine supply industry will be facing its own serious labour issues in the coming years, local analysts say.

A shrinking and aging labour force, coupled with aggressive "poaching" of skilled people is keeping employers scrambling to find qualified workers. Without a concerted effort to address these shortages, consequences could be dire. 

"It's a pretty significant risk," Reggie Caverson, executive director of the Sudbury Manitoulin Workforce Planning Board said. "You're going to see businesses closing because they can't find enough people. And then it could also be putting more pressure on the people that are currently working."

To address the shrinking pool of workers, some employers, like those in retail and the health sector, have doubled down on incorporating new technology. 

That's something mine operators can learn from, Caverson, said, by incorporating more artificial intelligence, more robots, or adjusting demands on workers that have endured tough times during the pandemic.

"We are seeing a lot of technological changes that are happening," Caverson said. "We're kind of on the cusp of these tech changes shifting through [mining]."

It's a similar trend in other fields – self checkouts at major grocery stores are the norm, while many doctors hold virtual clinics with their patients. 

Reggie Caverson is executive director of Workforce Planning for Sudbury and Manitoulin. (Casey Stranges/CBC)

Mining, however, isn't always the fastest industry to take adopt new technology. 

"We're not there yet," Caverson said. "But as mining moves to more smart mines, to autonomous systems, to use of artificial intelligence, robotics, we are going to be seeing some shifting happening there, as well."

What some economists are calling "The Great Resignation" – a sea change in employment as workers pack up and shift careers, or completely leave the workforce altogether – hasn't been nearly as apocalyptic as some predicted, but it hasn't entirely spared northern Ontario, Caverson said.

The region's healthy mining and mine supply industry – spurred by a 10-year high in nickel prices early in 2022– has allowed it to weather the storm.

But even with the local economy chugging along, labour issues are still at the forefront in discussions about its future.

A pre-pandemic report from Immigration Canada pointed to an aging Sudbury workforce as a key indicator that the local population wasn't capable of filling the region's staffing needs. 

"The workforce under the age of 55 has declined by 8 per cent, while the number aged 55 and older has risen by 61 per cent since 2010, meaning there are now 18,500 people headed toward retirement in the near future," the report said. 

Immigration could fill some of those gaps.- Reggie Caverson, Sudbury Manitoulin Workforce Planning Board executive director

Small changes are helping ease the pressure, Caverson said, but the region isn't in the clear, yet.

"We've seen a lot of international students who are now able to work because of some of the changes that happened at the federal level," Caverson said, referring to a federal extension of work permits for international students and temporary residents announced in August.

"We are seeing those kinds of strategies from immigration, [attracting] international talent, and I think even migration in from other parts of Ontario and Canada could help fill some of those gaps."

"We also saw in Alberta, where the oil industry has been significantly impacted, some people are moving back this way, so that may also help with our workforce challenges." 

Caverson said it will take a multi-pronged approach to help solve the labour woes, but it makes sense to keep an eye on changes in tech. Not only to ensure local industries are making the most out of advancements, but also to ensure that the next generation of workers has the skill set to work with the tools.

"We're seeing that, for example, if you come out of high school, you generally have lower skills. And will those lower skilled jobs still be there?" she said.

"I think it's something that we need to pay a lot of attention to. Are we helping young people develop the skills that they will need to be able to work in future jobs?" 

Marla Tremblay is the executive director of MineConnect. She says because mining was deemed an essential service during several lockdowns, it wasn't as affected by the 'Great Resignation' as other sectors. (Sophie Houle-Drapeau/CBC)

'Poaching' of top talent a constant challenge

Marla Tremblay, executive director of MineConnect, said because it was deemed an essential service during several lockdowns, the mining industry wasn't as affected by the 'Great Resignation' as other sectors.

More of an issue for employers is the constant "poaching" of top talent, she said.

"I feel like it's happening more and more," Tremblay said. "Really, it's a retention piece. This is something to work on."

Trembay said in the past few weeks she's connected with several people who have switched jobs to get a better deal. 

"Because there is such a need for qualified people, it's a job seekers market," she said. "You've got the upper hand if you can move over somewhere else and you've built a good reputation and are respected in the industry."

But the onus shouldn't fall on employees to determine if an employer is treating them fairly, or if their work wouldn't be valued at a competitor.

"That's another side of the coin. It's not just attracting new people, it's retaining the ones you have," Tremblay said. "Companies really need to look at what types of initiatives they have for from a retention standpoint." 

Money, she said, plays a big part, but it's not the only factor influencing employees' decisions.

"That's one thing COVID-19 has taught everybody, regardless of what sector you're in, is the whole flexibility piece, and having the options to maybe work at home," she said. 

"Sometimes those things are big for people. So now that they've experienced it, it's going to be hard to go back."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Story idea for me? casey.stranges@cbc.ca

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