By Dan Rankin
Perth-Wellington MP John Nater continued his 10-stop Summer Jobs Tour in St. Marys on Monday at the Pyramid Centre, discussing a variety of topics with local municipal representatives, employers and some of their summer student employees, until Nater was unexpectedly called away from the meeting due to a family emergency.
Representatives from the Township of Perth South and Town of St. Marys were in attendance, as were representatives from such local establishments as the St. Marys Museum, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the St. Marys Golf and Country Club and Veterinary Purchasing Company Ltd.
After only about half an hour of what had been scheduled as a two-and-a-half hour meeting in the PRC Community Centre, Nater was informed that his daughter was on the way to the Emergency Room. A call to the MP’s office later this week confirmed that, though there had been a “little emergency with one of the children,” everything was taken care of and “everybody was home” safely. Nater carried on with the Summer Jobs Tour Wednesday in his hometown of Mitchell.
In St. Marys on Monday, Nater started the conversation by asking how the St. Marys and area employers in attendance had benefited from the Canada Summer Jobs Program, which was created in 2006 to provide small businesses, non-profits and municipal governments with the ability to hire summer students they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford. This year, 95 different organizations in Perth-Wellington received a total of $427,373 to create 182 summer jobs. Nater asked if local organizations faced any problems in applying for the program, adding that his office had heard complaints from some businesses that notifications for the Canada Summer Jobs Program didn’t go out until May, which created hiring challenges.
St. Marys Museum curator and archivist Amy Cubberley agreed, suggesting the program could be moved to as early as February. “Reading week tends to be the time when university students start to look for summer jobs,” she said.
Next, the group discussed how to address labour shortages in the area. Unemployment is relatively low in Perth-Wellington, Nater said, alluding to a 2013 report that showed St. Marys’ unemployment rate was 5.2 percent, below the national rate, which sat at 6.8 percent in June. “What challenges do you face when trying to hire?” he asked.
Deb Hotchkiss, Executive Director of Partners in Employment in Stratford, said she knows some shift workers that rely on a second babysitter to pick up their children from their first babysitter on a regular basis. She suggested that one solution to filling job openings might be offering child care options outside regular business hours between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm.
Perth South Mayor Robert Wilhelm said that transportation is a major barrier in this area. “How do you get from Stratford to St. Marys, or from St. Marys to Stratford or London? There is nothing. It’s awful,” he said. “The government has really let us down on that aspect.”
People seem to have a low awareness of the existing carpooling website RegionalRideShare.ca, the group said. It was suggested that the region could benefit from a mini-bus shuttle service, such as the kind being introduced in the Region of Waterloo, called Bus Plus, this fall.
Sarah Franklin, Operations Coordinator for Perth Community Futures Development Corporation, said another factor contributing to transport issues in the region is that young people are putting off getting their driver’s licenses and buying vehicles, as they are often not needed to get around while studying at colleges or universities in urban centres with mass transit systems. “When they leave university and they’ve got a lot of skills that would be useful in our area, they have the barrier of purchasing a car, after they already have student debt,” she said. “If there’s no other transportation option, it really limits drawing that talent into a rural area.”
“Nowadays it’s expensive and it takes a long time to get your license,” added St. Marys Mayor Al Strathdee.
Moving the discussion to the topic of housing, Town of St. Marys Culture and Economic Development Manager Laurel Davies Snyder noted that a lack of affordable housing is making it difficult for young people seeking employment in the area.
“I have a friend, and her daughter can’t find a rental property in St. Marys that she can afford,” she said. “She’s looking at basement apartments and she can’t afford them, and she has a full time job at a granary.”
She suggested the federal government could help encourage the growth of the rental market by tying the creation of affordable housing to a carbon-reduction or sustainability initiative. But, to be successful, such homes would need to be carefully designed and integrated into the community, she added. “They need to be integrated, and maybe not a massive block of towers,” she said.
Hotchkiss and Davies also discussed the potential for renovating third floor apartments in downtown St. Marys, with Hotchkiss noting that, currently, “by-laws are such that it’s not affordable for building owners to make [renovations to] those apartments.”
“Being able to provide property owners with some sort of repayable grant or loan that would assist with the internal renovations” would be useful, suggest Davies. “Usually we can provide [grants for] external, like facade improvements, signage, brick repointing, but the internal we haven’t gotten into,” she said. “That would be great. That would help with downtown revitalization as well.”
Veterinary Purchasing seasonal student Megan Spence said that, when it comes to applying for agriculture jobs, most employers are only looking for candidates who already have the necessary skills and training.
Wilhelm agreed that the level of training needed for some jobs can be a barrier for potential employees. “A small employer doesn’t have three days at this time of year to spend training individuals,” he said.
Hotchkiss used this opportunity to promote the federal government’s Skills Link program. “We have funding to assist 60 young people that are out of school and out of work that live in Perth County,” she said. “They get a two day course in First Aid, WHMIS, safe food handling, Smart Serve and a seven hour service excellence program. We have some youths going through that right now. It’s happening in Stratford, but we’re transporting four youths from St. Marys to Stratford everyday to participate.”
When Nater was forced to depart and the meeting was cut short, an aide indicated that they planned to build a report based on the topics discussed on the jobs tour to “hopefully implement positive change in the House.”
In a statement released after the St. Marys Jobs Tour stop, Nater thanked the participants for attending, stating “modern skills training is incredibly important in today’s economy. I hope we can find solutions and help employees gain the skills they need.”
“The federal government also needs to do a better job of publicizing the skills training programs available,” he said. “Your feedback is incredibly valuable for policy development”.
Other stops coming up on Nater’s riding-wide Summer Jobs Tour include Harriston, on July 26, and Stratford, on July 27, as well as Arthur, before finishing up in Listowel and Mount Forest on Aug. 10.
To contact, Nater, call his Stratford office at 519-273-1400, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.