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The Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot program: How experienced talent with fresh perspectives are benefiting Greater Sudbury

The City of Greater Sudbury is fortunate to be taking part in a forward-thinking project.

The Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot (RNIP) program is a unique permanent residence pathway for international workers. The program, which is delivered by the City of Greater Sudbury’s Economic Development division and funded by FedNor and the Greater Sudbury Development Corporation, works to address local labour force shortages, while encouraging immigration and population growth.

To qualify, candidates must secure a job offer in the community and meet both federal and community criteria. The program is designed for workers who intend to reside in the City of Greater Sudbury over the long term. If approved, workers can apply for permanent residence as well as a work permit which is exempt from the Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) process.

Greater Sudbury was chosen as one of only eleven communities across the country to participate. The area, as many know, has been challenged with labour shortages even before Covid-19—and the situation hasn’t improved.

These skilled labour shortages are due to a combination of factors, including outmigration, an aging population and declining birth rates. Compared to other urban centres across Canada, the city has a lower immigration rate.

A study done by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) found signs that the aging population is starting to have a negative impact on the Greater Sudbury economy. “The size of the workforce in 2019 is about the same as it was back in 2010. The workforce under the age of 55 has declined by 8%, while the number aged 55 and older has risen by 61% since 2010, meaning there are now 18,500 people headed toward retirement in the near future.”

To take a look at how the RNIP program works, we spoke with Sonja Mullan, Human Resources Manager at Lopes Limited.

Success story

Sonja Mullan has experience working all over the country attracting talent to remote regions.

Lopes Limited has been involved with RNIP since its inception. Mullan was part of a group of employers who had met to discuss the ongoing manpower needs in Greater Sudbury. “It’s a chronic issue across Canada still,” she says.

So far the company has brought one person from overseas and supported a student who was already located in Greater Sudbury, helping them start work and apply for permanent residence through the pilot.

“It has been an outstanding experience,” she says. “The fact that you have a local program with a local representative who knows the needs and has direct contact with immigration so they can explain the urgency has been of great value.”

It certainly makes the process of bringing people here much faster. Her company recently brought a project manager—a mechanical engineer—here from Venezuela. They had originally applied through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), going through the LMIA process, which is long and involved.

After speaking to Alex Ross, Economic Development Officer, Human Capital at the City of Greater Sudbury, he advised Lopes Limited that the position is eligible through the RNIP and encouraged their candidate to apply.

“She applied and in a month she was in town. It took about three weeks to get her approved and in 5-6 weeks she was here,” says Mullan. “And that was all done through the pandemic.”

When dealing with job shortages, employers always consider qualified local candidates first before looking at international candidates; they only engage with the program after they’ve exhausted local efforts. Employers must confirm and demonstrate that they have tried to fill their positions with Canadian citizens or permanent residents first.

“Many employers I have spoken to say that they have tried everything and have had job postings up for months. Some employers have looked into incentives for other staff to help with finding qualified workers,” says Ross.

Between different programs, there can be overlap and it can create confusion. That only hinders the candidate, rather than helping them. For Mullan, having this direct line of contact to ask questions and get answers saved them from having to go through additional steps. “It was really refreshing,” she says.

The company had to demonstrate that they have been in business for a certain amount of time, that they have an inclusive and diverse approach, and that they’ve done their due diligence.

Lopes has been in town for many years and is very involved with the community, which helps demonstrate how easy it will be for someone to integrate. “Really that’s what you have to show, that you’re a legitimate employer and that the candidate will be successful at blending in and being part of the team,” she says.

Another benefit of the program is financial: the eligibility criteria required to apply for permanent residence is more doable. In the RNIP, a single person applying has to prove that they have just over $9,000 Canadian in their bank account. Through the express entry program, or other similar ones, that figure is just over $13,000.

“You might think, well what is $4,000, but when someone comes from a country with economic challenges or one that is in the throes of war, saving $9,000 is a big deal,” says Mullan. “There is a reason why people immigrate. It’s not because back home is really safe and stable. In Venezuela the minimum wage is under $200 a month, so imagine trying to save that amount. I think the RNIP is more in tune with the reality of an immigrant.”

The program also asks the candidate about their interest in Northern Ontario. This encourages the applicant to dig deeper into the community to get to know where they’re going. “It really creates a connection and a feeling that the government cares,” she says.

The other candidate her company has helped is an industrial engineer originally from Colombia. She went to Australia to study English, then came to Cambrian College to obtain a certificate in business. She came to Greater Sudbury with her husband and two-year-old son, applying at Lopes Limited when she finished school. Right now, she is the Quality Control Assistant for the Quality Control Department and she is working toward eventually becoming a Quality Control Inspector in the field of industrial construction.

“Colombia is a country that is politically and economically challenged,” says Mullan, “but she has a bright future here.”

Mullan contacted Ross and had her candidate apply through the RNIP program so she could start the permanent residency process for herself and her family. It was quick and personal, and Ross made a point of connecting with them. “It was a nice experience for them. It makes them feel that they are in the right place and they belong,” she says.

The program gives Mullan hope that eventually employers can access qualified manpower faster when they have exhausted the local talent pool. Employers will be more willing to look outside the country for a qualified candidate if the wait is two months instead of a year.

It also benefits prospective candidates who are already here. They are often consumed with worry, concerned about their immigration status. But because this program is dedicated to Northern Ontario and Greater Sudbury, it takes that worry away, allowing them to focus on moving forward. They can concentrate on building a career and being part of the community.

The three-year pilot program is set to end in 2022—and two of those three years happened during a pandemic.

Employers in Northern Ontario report that it takes an unreasonably long time to find qualified candidates and that this has been the case for years. The area loses a lot of talent to bigger cities.

These talented candidates from abroad help strengthen both the economy and the workforce in the north. Greater Sudbury is a city that was built on immigration, says Mullan, with the mining industry drawing people from all corners. It’s a welcoming city and Lopes employees embrace the diversity.

“We have brought talent that have a different way of thinking and operating,” says Mullan, “and having different backgrounds is good. It challenges the way you do things and maybe reassures you that you’re doing great. As a company, we feel pride in being able to help talent that is coming from overseas find a life here. There’s a sense that we’re not only doing something good for the company, we’re also doing something good for Greater Sudbury.”

It would be sad to see the program not continue, she says. Many industries have been hurt by the pandemic but mining, for example, has not stopped. There are still jobs available and there is a need.