Chefs who know how to cook Indian food are hard to come by in Nelson.
But Ciraj Premanatham, the owner of Kootenay Tamil Kitchen, has three, and he credits an immigration pilot program for this good fortune.
The cooks have helped him confront a local labour shortage and it gives Premanatham access to specialized knowledge he might not find in Nelson.
“Our restaurant is ethnic,” he says, “and we need a specific person who knows this cuisine. And it’s a good program for a community to bring in new cultures.”
As for the employees, the Rural and Northern Immigration Program (RNIP) gives them and their families a direct route to permanent resident status in Canada.
Many businesses in Nelson applaud RNIP, begun in 2020 and recently extended another two years by the federal government. The program makes it easier for people from other countries to get permanent resident status here while meeting local job demands.
Many Nelson businesses are struggling to find enough employees, and they want the federal government to increase immigration to remedy this labour shortage.
This is a central message of a new report entitled State of the Sectors, released this summer by the Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce. The chamber interviewed dozens of employers about challenges facing the construction, retail, and food and beverage sectors in the area.
The labour shortage is consistent with the unemployment rate, which in the Kootenays was 3.9 per cent in July, lower than the B.C. rate of 4.7 per cent and lower than the current national record low of 4.9 per cent.
The labour shortage across the country is thought by many experts, including Pierre Cléroux, chief economist at the Business Development Bank of Canada, to be largely due to the aging population.
“Today, 16 per cent of Canadians are over 65. In the next five years, many Canadians are going to retire,” Cléroux told The Canadian Press in 2021. “And not a lot of young people are entering the job market.”
This trend has accelerated during the pandemic with many workers retiring early.
“So if it’s a labor shortage right now, it’s going to become even more acute in a few years,” says chamber executive director Tom Thomson. He said increasing immigration would be at least a partial solution.
But the State of the Sectors report acknowledges that it would take a very large increase in immigration to solve the labour shortage.
Immigration already accounts for almost 100 per cent of labour force growth in Canada, according to the federal government.
Many of the larger employers say they depend on current and former students in Selkirk College’s international student program to fill jobs.
Some of those students work part time while going to school, and in the summers their student visas allow them to work full time. After finishing school, many of them then stay in Nelson to work and apply for permanent resident status.
Tracy Punchard, who heads the hospitality and tourism program at Selkirk College, says last year there were 585 international students at Selkirk. About two-thirds of them are in the college’s business or tourism/hospitality programs.
Shane Warman, manager at Save-On-Foods in Nelson, told the Nelson Star that without current or former international students it would be difficult to fully staff his store.
“I’ve been hiring for the last six weeks in a row, and I’ve gotten very minimal applicants. Right now I need at least six people.”
He says about 15-to-20 per cent of his 154 employees are from outside Canada, and most of those are Selkirk students or former students.
Ryan Martin, general manager of the Hume Hotel and the Best Western Plus, says his business also depends on international students.
“We’ve been fortunate to hire so many wonderful people that want to work. Some of them have two jobs — they’ll work a day job, they’ll work a night job. Some of them send money home to their families. They’re very appreciative of the job.”
Of Martin’s 260 employees, about a third are current or former international students, he says, and half of those are people who have finished school and have stayed in Nelson to work toward their permanent resident status.
“They love our community. They’ve put some roots down here in a relatively short time. They have contacts, they have their peer group.”
Martin says the majority are from India and the Philippines. This squares with 2021 census datashowing that the two fastest-growing language groups in Nelson are Punjabi and the Filipino language Tagalog.
Punchard said one of the largest employers of current and former international students in Nelson is Walmart. Those workers are enrolled in a variety of different college programs including university transfer programs, and are looking to make a living and get job experience for future schooling, work, and permanent resident status. Walmart management declined to comment for this story.
Punchard says most of the international students already have degrees or diplomas from their home countries.
They are here to take a two-year educational program, which is the minimum requirement that allows them then to apply for a three-year work permit. And then from there, they can apply for their permanent residence.
She says the students are in high demand from Nelson and area employers.
“We’re running absolutely maximum capacity (in the hospitality and tourism program) and our kitchen up at 10th Street is running seven days a week, and two shifts five days a week, to train these students,” she says.
The biggest challenge is housing for the students.
“It is the one thing that keeps us awake at night,” says Punchard.
The college, in an attempt to alleviate this problem, is about to construct new student housing – a 112-bed building to be added in Castlegar, and 36 beds in Nelson – set for completion in 2023.
Rural immigration pilot
The RNIP – the program being used at Kootenay Tamil Kitchen — is designed to attract well-educated immigrants to rural areas. The program has been running in Nelson, Trail, Rossland, Castlegar, Trail and Salmo since June 2020.
The State of the Sectors report recommended that the federal government extend the program, and last week it did so for another two years.
“The chamber had asked for this, and it is great that they have acted on the request of the business community,” said Thomson.
Most of the workers in the program already have jobs here and are hoping to apply for permanent resident status. The local program run by Community Futures recommends people for this status if they meet eligibility requirements related to education, work experience, a language test, a job offer in the West Kootenay, the intent to reside in the West Kootenay, and a certain level of personal funds.
It gives priority to people employed in jobs that are known to be difficult to fill in the West Kootenay.
Program co-ordinator Erin Rooney says RNIP has so far recommended 240 people for permanent resident status. Adding their family members, this amounts to about 460 people, she says.
“Employers are very happy to have this pilot,” she says. “They wanted it extended. A lot of employers have told me they wouldn’t have been able to continue serving customers or the public the way they do without RNIP.”