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Workers put in overtime printing pages for a book at Friesens Corp. in Altona, Man., on Nov. 28.Tim Smith/The Globe and Mail

The signs of a labour shortage are everywhere in this town of 4,500 in southern Manitoba.

Billboards pleading for help pop up often by the side of Highway 75, which runs from Winnipeg to Altona, and then to the U.S. border. One pitches a night shift premium. Another company counters with the perk of no night work.

And then there’s the straight-to-the-point sign from Elmer’s Manufacturing Ltd., on the northern edge of Altona: “Great welders wanted.” That missive has stayed planted by the highway for the entire fall season.

The agricultural equipment maker has 25 welders, but enough business to employ 35. Experienced welders are in short supply, however – like pretty much every kind of worker in Altona. Local businesses are all scrambling for staff, from the region’s largest employer, the printing firm Friesens Corp., to the smallest.

That was true even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since early 2020, however, the combination of rising agricultural commodity prices and a shift of consumer dollars from services to tangible items – including real estate – has created intense competition for skilled industrial tradespeople, says Mike Friesen, Elmer’s chief executive officer.

“Everyone is running at 110 per cent,” he says.

Mr. Friesen said other companies have begun to offer hiring bonuses, and initial wages being advertised in the area have jumped by 20 per cent to 30 per cent. Elmer’s hasn’t fully followed suit – at least not yet – though Mr. Friesen says his company has bumped up its starting wages somewhat.

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Poaching has become rampant, he says, but ultimately self-defeating. What’s really needed, Mr. Friesen adds, is more workers to add to Altona’s shallow labour pool – a local problem that’s also being experienced on a national scale.

On that front, Altona benefited from lucky timing, becoming one of 11 communities across Canada to take part in a federal pilot program that gives skilled foreign workers a fast track to permanent residence.

Altona began accepting applications under that program in November, 2019, with an allotment of 175 spots for the first two years. But the pandemic disrupted the immigration process for overseas candidates.

By early November, 2021, 14 applicants – many with spouses also eligible to work – had arrived from countries including South Korea, Nigeria, the Philippines and Poland. Another 25 applicants have been approved, but have yet to arrive.

The town is no stranger to greeting newcomers, with a wave of Mennonite emigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America arriving a decade ago, reinforcing the Mennonite roots of the community. More recently, Altona welcomed an influx of refugees from Syria.

The latest arrivals have added to the growing multicultural feel of the town, with a Filipino-themed restaurant opening not long ago, Mayor Al Friesen says. “It’s been a real positive thing, it’s broadened our horizons.”

Indeed, the pandemic has left Altona with fewer new faces than it had hoped for. Stephanie Harris, Altona’s economic development officer, estimates another 120 full-time jobs could be filled immediately under the program, given enough applicants to match to local businesses. As is the case nationally, immigration has not proven to be a panacea for a persistent and growing labour shortage.

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