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Quebec's surprising economic strength over the past three years is under threat by a growing worker shortage that's the worst in Canada, a top Bank of Montreal executive warns.

“This is the biggest and most brutal change to hit our economy in years,” Claude Gagnon, president of operations for BMO Financial Group in Quebec, told a Montreal business audience Tuesday.

“In the space of just five years, we’ve moved from a chronic unemployment problem higher than the Canadian average to Canada’s worst labour shortage,” Mr. Gagnon said in prepared remarks to the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal that were shared with The Globe and Mail. “This is a change in paradigm.”

Business leaders in Canada’s second-largest province have been sounding the alarm for months on the acute problems they are experiencing finding workers, a situation felt also by their counterparts in other parts of the country. But Mr. Gagnon’s comments are among the most urgent to date on the magnitude of the dilemma, and desperately underscore the need for solutions.

At the end of the last quarter of 2018, Quebec had 117,000 private-sector jobs unfilled, according to data from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). That’s a vacancy rate of 4.1 per cent, the highest in Canada.

The most recent figures available from National Bank of Canada show that Quebec’s economy, as measured by real gross domestic product, grew 2.5 per cent on an annualized basis in the third quarter of last year – the 11th consecutive quarter of positive growth – to cement a stunning expansion in the province after years of listlessness. That boom, however, is now under threat as companies struggle to find enough employees to meet demand.

“The lack of workers will contribute to curbing growth,” Mr. Gagnon said, adding Quebeckers should ask themselves what kind of jobs they want to keep and which could be replaced by robots. “This is the number one problem for corporate leaders.”

The shortage is exacerbated by the fact companies are seeking to add employees at the same time the general population is aging. Since 2014, the province has been losing about 5,000 workers a year, according to figures compiled by economist Pierre Fortin and cited by Mr. Gagnon. Essentially, that’s the difference between the number of people entering the work force and the number of people retiring every year.

The problem extends across the province and has been building over time, said Simon Goudreault, the CFIB’s senior director of national research. Labour shortages are preventing companies from expanding, winning new contracts and investing, he said, adding that in the worst cases, it threatens their business’s very existence. Among the occupations most in demand are welders, truck drivers, cooks and sales people.

“It has come to a point where it’s not just very specialized employees that are scarce but also semi or unskilled labour,” Mr. Goudreault said. “The problem is not only growing, it’s spreading across different job categories.”

Quebec’s Coalition Avenir Québec government, led by Premier François Legault, last week sketched out a new effort to tackle the worker shortage, saying it will mobilize 200 civil servants and more than 100 technical staff to support employers who need help finding manpower. The Opposition Liberals charge that the government’s plan to trim immigration levels will only worsen the problem.

Amid increasing questions about what kind of jobs Quebec should try to prioritize, Mr. Gagnon on Tuesday outlined plans by BMO to start a new economic index measuring the quality of jobs created in the province on an annual basis. A first reading is expected in the spring.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Claude Gagnon's is general manager of operations for BMO Financial Group in Quebec. In fact, he is president of operations.

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