Fallout from COVID-19 not going away any time soon, Manitoba Chambers of Commerce hears

By: Gabrielle Piché

Pandemic-era issues plaguing businesses will not ease soon, according to attendees at the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce’s economic summit Friday.

The labour shortage will last years, said Isabelle Hudon, president of the Business Development Bank of Canada. She spoke with the Free Press after providing Friday’s opening remarks.

“(The) labour shortage is now a reality that will not disappear,” she said. “There’s no quick solution for this.”

An aging workforce — and fewer young people — plays its role, Hudon said. And, Canada is down nearly one million immigrants it would’ve accepted had there not been a COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

“It’s not like out of nowhere… you find a million workers,” she said.

Even with borders reopening, the two-year pause on regular migration will create a lag in the workforce unless the number of people entering Canada increases, Hudon said.

“Are we capable of overcoming this challenge? I do think so, but not… if we decide to go back to the pre-pandemic approach,” she said.

MP Dan Vandal, who spoke later in the day, said Ottawa is committed to “more ambitious immigration numbers” but didn’t delve into specifics.

“That’s something we are committed to 150 per cent,” he said.

For now, workers have choice and bargaining power, Hudon said.

“We need to rethink how we manage employees, how we attract employees and how we retain employees,” she said.

Manitoba had a 0.4 per cent change in employment from February 2020 through last March —below the national 2.4 per cent increase, said Stephen Tapp, another presenter and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s chief economist.

But, Manitoba was also third highest for labour market tightness in January, behind Quebec and British Columbia.

“It’s going to be tough to hire for the near term,” Tapp said.

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Chuck Davidson, president and chief executive officer of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce.</p>
MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILESChuck Davidson, president and chief executive officer of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce.

He noted borrowing costs are expected to rise as central banks raise rates. And, supply chain snarls won’t be resolved in the short-term due to global events.

“There’s going to be a lot of challenges in terms of profitability,” Tapp said. “On the flip side, we certainly do have a lot of demand from customers and people who are looking to get back out to restaurants, to patios, to doing things, to travel.”

Manitoba’s GDP growth last year trailed behind Canada’s — 1.2 per cent compared to the national 4.8 per cent, Tapp shared.

Manitoban businesses need to undertake bigger technological shifts, Hudon said.

“When we compare to other countries, OECD countries, Canada is… very, very low down the list of countries regarding productivity and digital investment,” she said.

“We have to stop talking about productivity… (like it) will be solved by just working more.”

Digitization will improve productivity and smooth some operations, Hudon said.

Panelists discussed digital adaptation during Friday’s eight-hour event. Entrepreneurs can access a BDC loan with zero per cent interest — the Canada Digital Adoption Program — as the country looks to upgrade its tech, Hudon said.

Another Friday panel focused on the travel, tourism and hospitality industry’s recovery.

“The… industry was literally decimated by the outbreak and continues to struggle to get back on its feet,” said Colin Ferguson, Travel Manitoba’s president.

Nearly half of jobs lost during the pandemic were from the hospitality sector, he said. Travel Manitoba is now in the midst of an advertising campaign to entice workers.

The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce grew its corporate membership eight to 10 per cent, attendees of its Friday annual general meeting heard.

“The chamber network has never been more relevant than it is now, and it’s never had to be more relevant,” said Chuck Davidson, the organization’s president.

The business association will work on diversifying itself, incoming chairwoman Michelle Kuly said.

She noted the creation of the Black Manitobans Chamber of Commerce, which announced itself April 27, in her opening comments.

“We’re not yet representative of the diversity of business owners in the province,” she said. “I know we can feel defensive (about the new chamber)… we must instead lean into those conversations with openness, curiosity and urgency.”

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