Help wanted in the Highlands:

Creative solutions needed for public and private sectors to address labour shortage, says Haliburton County CAO

By Stephen Petrick

This is the first in a series of stories for the Haliburton Echo/Minden Times, which will provide an insight on how a labour shortage is affecting our communities. This story looks at how it’s impacting municipalities and the rippling effect on the tax base.  

Last fall, Haliburton County had an opening for a procurement specialist – and in another era the process to fill the position would probably have gone smoothly. The position, which involves sourcing goods and services for municipalities, was going to pay well, offer good working conditions and be set in beautiful cottage country.
The county found a qualified candidate from outside the area and offered the position, but the candidate declined after not finding housing that met their needs. The county then made an offer to another candidate, who also declined, for a variety of personal reasons, including housing.
As a result, administrators took a step back and came up with a creative solution. The county is now trying to build a partnership with a neighbouring county who has a senior procurement specialist and is willing to train a more junior specialist who would work in Haliburton County. The county recently re-advertised the job, but cast a wider net, so the right candidate this time didn’t have to have all the qualifications right away. As of Aug. 9, the county was in the final stages of hiring the new candidate and an announcement on the new hire was expected soon.
The story, which was explained by Haliburton County Chief Administrative Officer Mike Rutter, is an example of hiring in 2022, when a labour shortage is affecting a variety of Canadian industries, including municipalities.
While the shortage of workers in health care is well documented and obvious to understand – given the stress that sector has felt since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – there’s also evidence that a labour shortage is being felt across various industries. A 2022 survey conducted by the local Workforce Development Board found that 63.6 per cent of businesses said they intend to hire in 2022. Yet 44 per cent of those surveyed said it’s difficult to fill positions, due to a lack of applicants. The survey targeted businesses from a wide cross-section of industries in Peterborough, Kawartha Lakes, Northumberland and Haliburton County. The list included manufacturing, retail, food services and public administration, the field that encompasses Rutter’s type of work.
“In the past, we might have said we want to have qualification A, B, C, and hold firm to that,” Rutter said. “We may now be flexible in that and recognize there will be training.”

Rutter said he used to see about 15 strong applications whenever the county offered a position that required a specific skill set.
Now, he says, there’s usually two or three good applications for a position. He believes the trend is the result of the pandemic, the stress of which has accelerated the number of retirements in the powerful baby boom demographic. He also says the process of bringing in a new worker is more complicated than it’s ever been, considering that positions require such specific training and employees may now come with specific requests, such as the ability to work remotely.
He’s not likely alone in that thought. The Workforce Development Board survey reported that 49 per cent of businesses feel there’s a poor availability of qualified workers. The survey also reported 41 per cent of business saying COVID-19 had a significant negative impact on their business.
This problem has vast consequences. In the Haliburton County case, not having a procurement specialist, whose job is to find savings for municipalities as they purchase goods and services, impacts the county’s budget and, in turn, residents’ tax commitments.
Rutter said the county’s service delivery review plan calls for nearly $1 million in savings, based on having someone in that position working on collaborative procurement.
And while Rutter has to worry about ensuring municipal positions are filled so taxpayers are getting bang for their buck, he also realizes that he and his colleagues must also support the private businesses in the community. 
When asked how concerned he is for them, he said “very,” knowing that if a labour shortage is impacting their operations, they’re not likely meeting their revenue potentials and not contributing as much to the tax base, meaning the residential taxpayer is shouldering higher costs.

Rutter believes there’s no one magic solution to the labour shortage for the private sector in a rural area, but transportation is an issue that always come up in Haliburton County.
He touted a new program, which the country recently financially backed, hoping it will lead to more people accessing the training they need to enter the workforce. The program involved the leasing of an eight-person van and the hiring of a driver, who picks up people from their Haliburton-area homes and takes them to training programs run out of the SIRCH (Supportive Initiative for Residents in the County of Haliburton) office in the village. The hope is that people in remote, rural areas will have access to training and will eventually work in fields such as hospitality, retail and carpentry, where there’s demand for workers.
Rutter also knows, from the procurement specialist situation, that a lack of available housing in the region, is also linked to a lack of available workers.
He said he and his colleagues at the county have discussed the idea of either purchasing property or taking property it owns and converting it into housing, which could be rented out to new county employees on a short-term basis. The idea is that, if they take a job here, they’ll have a place they can stay at right away and until they’ve found their own place to live. That might limit the potential of a repeat of what happened in the fall, but it could be tough to pull off, he pointed out.
“We’re not spending our own money, we’re spending taxpayer money so we want to do it well if we do it,” he said.
He emphasized that to address the labour shortage both in the public and private sectors, the county and its partners will have to continue to look at creative solutions. Internally, the county is now considering different opportunities for recruiting and retaining staff, such as allowing them to work longer shifts, in exchange for a weekday off or allowing employees to spend some days working at home.

He also acknowledged there’s silver linings in the issue. He knows a new generation of employees may be able to enter the workforce without the limitations that many other generations have faced.
Plus, he sees the story of what happened with the procurement specialist job as a potential opportunity to find a local person, interested in a career in municipal work. When a rural business has to hire a position with a specific skill, they may not always have a local candidate. But Rutter thinks, with the position now advertised with fewer specific requirements, he might be able to find an unexpected home-grown employee, who turns out to be well worth the investment.
“I say to my staff all the time, ‘let’s find people who love Haliburton County,’” he said. “We’d love to give those opportunities and training to local people. They may be in the county already and waiting for that opportunity.”