Premier faces questions about labour shortages at Chamber of Commerce Luncheon

Premier Scott Moe answers a question during the Prince Albert Chamber of Commerce Luncheon at the Ches Leach Lounge on Thursday, April 4, 2024. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe faced questions about the province’s labour shortage and how that’s hurting business development during the Prince Albert Chamber of Commerce Lunch at the Ches Leach Lounge on Thursday.

Moe briefly fielded questions from the Chamber following a presentation from Finance Minister Donna Harpauer. Moe emphasized the province’s commitment to recruiting foreign workers, especially in healthcare, while also improving and expanding job training opportunities for current residents, and speeding up the amount of time it takes the province to recognize foreign credentials.

“If any of you in this room have been short of staff in your business, you would identify one of those things—or possibly all three of them—as being crucially important to adding people to your workforce, thereby allowing you the opportunity to maintain the business level that you have, expand your business, and ultimately that creates additional wealth for this community,” Moe told attendees.

Staffing shortages have been a major problem for Saskatchewan businesses since the province reopened after COVID. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) says one-third of Saskatchewan businesses cannot find the workers they need to operate at their normal level, while 78 per cent are limited in expanding or growing due to the labour shortage.

In an interview with reporters following the Luncheon, Moe argued Saskatchewan’s labour plan is the most ambitious in Canada, especially when it comes to recognizing the credentials brought by foreign workers.

He said new legislation brought in last year will help speed up the recognition process, while providing more feedback for new immigrants whose credentials are rejected.

“Everyone has heard the story about the doctor or the nurse who is not able to practice in their profession,” Moe said. “We want to prevent that, but we also need to ensure that the people who are offering the services, whether in the trades or in healthcare, are most certainly qualified.”

Prince Albert Chamber of Commerce CEO Patty Hughes said staffing shortages are just one of many factors preventing business owners from expanding. She said the province’s decision to keep the small business tax rate at one per cent instead of increasing it to two was a big help, but it’s still a struggle.

“There’s rising costs and inflation is affecting everybody,” she explained. “They (business owners) have to give their employees more, the cost of living increases and transportation, it just keeps adding up and it erodes the margins. A lot of small businesses really struggle with having to keep the doors open and provide that same level of customer service.”

It’s not just business owners facing labour shortages. Saskatchewan’s healthcare system is already understaffed, and that labour market will get even tighter when construction finishes on the new Victoria Hospital expansion in Prince Albert.

Moe said they expect to need 400 to 500 staff in Prince Albert for the expanded facility, while also having to fill positions for urgent care centres in Saskatoon and Regina.

In the past year, Saskatchewan has hired more than 1,000 Canadian grads to help meet healthcare staff shortages. Moe said the SHA has also made job offers to 470 Filipino nurses, with 170 on the ground working in healthcare.

The province’s efforts have faced criticism from groups like the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). In March, SUN president Tracy Zambory told the Regina Leader-Post the government’s recent budget was “underwhelming”, while CUPE Local 5430 president Bashir Jalloh said healthcare investments won’t work without equal investment into retention and improvements in workplace conditions.

Moe acknowledge the road has had some bumps, but said Saskatchewan’s plan is already paying dividends.

“I won’t say it isn’t going to be a challenge, but I do have a strong level of confidence in the Health Human Resource Recruitment Plan that we have put together,” he said.

As with small businesses, the healthcare sector faces challenges with credential recognition. In 2023, RBC released a report showing 29.3 per cent of immigrants with degrees in medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine or optometry were working in jobs that do not require those skills or degrees.

Moe said the government has been working with provincial regulatory boards to ensure applicants get more feedback on why their credentials were rejected.

“If the answer is no, we need to very concretely communicate what the deficiencies are,” he said. “If it’s just a couple of classes or maybe an English deficiency or proof of knowing the English language, being competent in the English language, that’s very clearly spelled out so that that deficiency can be corrected, and corrected very quick.”