When JD Aero got up and running in Sault Ste. Marie in 2007, it had just three employees. Two of them were the company’s founders, Julian Chin and Don McNabb.
Since then, the company, which provides aviation maintenance, repair, and overhaul services, has taken off. Its clients include WestJet, Porter Airlines, Horizon Air, and the government of Canada, and it now has 130 people on the payroll. “We have so much work; we are always at max capacity,” says Chin. “There are four aircraft on four lines at any one time.”
Chin says he’d like to double his workforce, but there’s one problem: he can’t find qualified candidates. And he’s not alone. In a survey conducted in December by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, 47 per cent of the country’s small businesses reported a shortage of skilled workers.
But city staff think they may know where to find some: 730 kilometres southeast, in Oshawa. When the General Motors plant there closes this year, almost 2,900 people will be out of a job — so Sault Ste. Marie is developing a strategy to convince them to move up north.
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Tom Vair, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer, community development and enterprise services, says that they have already reached out to GM. “They have been favourable to us going down and pitching those jobs,” he says.
Sault Ste. Marie already has a program in place designed in part to attract new workers, visitors, and businesses — FutureSSM, launched in 2018 — but the GM closure represents a unique opportunity.
“The GM workers are enticing given the anticipated skills training and number of potential candidates,” says Vair, adding that the city may also prove enticing for the workers because of the low cost of living and high quality of life. It’s currently offering no extra incentives for relocation, but Vair says that’s something city staff are looking at.
“I think municipalities have to be conscientious about communicating the value proposition that they have as a place to live,” says Mayor Christian Provenzano. “I don't think you can just sit back and hope to find people when you're a community like Sault Ste. Marie.”
Algoma Steel is one of the local employers that’s eager to hire. Thanks to $150 million in recent funding from the federal and provincial governments, it plans to modify and expand operations — which will mean hiring 50 more workers. But even more jobs may become available: 700 employees are eligible to retire today, says Brenda Stenta, Algoma’s manager of communications. The company is actively recruiting for supervisory positions, engineers, electricians, mechanics, welders, and other tradespeople.
Stenta also told TVO.org in an email that the company has hired more than 500 workers over the past two years and expects to hire at a similar rate through to 2024.
Former GM employees may not be qualified for all such positions, but the city is working on an answer to that, too. Vair says that it is in preliminary talks with Durham College, in Oshawa, about retraining workers so that they will be eligible for other types of skilled jobs in Sault Ste. Marie. (Peter Garrett, Durham College's manager of strategic reporting and government relations, confirmed that the school has had an introductory call with city officials.)
Sault Ste. Marie isn’t the only community looking to appeal to GM employees. North Simcoe, for example, has launched an advertising campaign aimed at attracting workers, including those from the Oshawa plant.
Unifor, the union representing GM workers in Oshawa, hasn’t given up the fight to keep the plant in operation. It has launched the “Save Oshawa GM” campaign, which involves pushing for a consumer boycott of Mexican-made GM vehicles. Union president Jerry Dias remains confident that GM Oshawa won’t close — but he’s supportive of efforts to recruit its workers.
"What the Sault is doing is what everyone else should be doing," he says.
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
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