COVID kiboshes intake in North Okanagan immigration project | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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COVID kiboshes intake in North Okanagan immigration project

FILE PHOTO: Welcome to Vernon sign.
February 17, 2021 - 7:30 AM

A North Okanagan skilled worker immigration project launched weeks before the coronavirus pandemic hit received less than one-third of the number of applications it had expected.

The Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot Project had hoped to bring much-needed skilled workers to the North Okanagan and Lake Country but one year after it launched it had only approved 29 applications, a mere fraction of the 100 that had been estimated.

"COVID has impacted this program significantly," Community Futures North Okanagan executive director Leigha Horsfield said. "We thought 100 (would be) recommended every year but we haven't seen that happen."

Launched in February 2020, the City of Vernon was one of just 11 communities across the country to take part in the pilot project which is an initiative of the federal government to get skilled immigrant workers to move to small and rural communities as currently, the vast majority of emigrants to Canada settle in the country's biggest cities.

The program, which is run by Community Futures, is designed to fill gaps the skilled labour shortage across the North Okanagan and Lake Country.

Unlike the temporary foreign worker program and other immigration programs, the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot Project aims to have skilled immigrants stay permanently in the region and become part of the community.

The project received 19,000 expressions of interest but that ultimately led to 35 complete and eligible applications of which 29 were approved.

The applications came from individuals in India, China, South Korea, as well as the U.S. and European countries.

While the pandemic has hampered the scheme, Horsfield said the need for skilled workers in the region still remains.

"The unemployment rate in the Okanagan valley is one of the lowest in the country right now," she said.

READ MORE: Job growth good in some sectors of Thompson-Okanagan economy despite pandemic

Recently released figures from Statistics Canada show the North Okanagan grew by 1.4 per cent in 2020, faster than the provincial average of 1.1 per cent. Statistics also show that Canada's natural population growth has been on the decline since the late 1980s. In 2019, more than 80 per cent of population growth in Canada came from immigration with new births counting for only 18 per cent.

In the North Okanagan, Horsfield said there are skilled labour shortages across the board in everything from health care and hospitality and tourism, to trades, construction and professional services.

"I think we're going to continue to see a shortage of skilled labour. I know from our other programming we're often being contacted by employers looking for staff," she said.

One of the issues unique to the region is that in Vernon only 47 per cent of the population is in the workforce, a big difference compared to Vancouver at roughly 65 per cent.

To take part in the program employers had to offer positions that fit into two categories and paid a minimum of either $25 an hour or $20 an hour. The rates were later lowered to $23 an hour and $18 an hour in the hope of encouraging more participants.

READ MORE: A diversified economy sheltered Kelowna from the COVID-19 storm

Horsfield said employers that applied to be part of the program came from a cross-section of industries.

"We haven't had an overwhelming number of employers from any one sector, so that reinforces the diversity that we have in this region," she said.

While the pandemic greatly reduced the number of applicants, Horsfield hopes that once the pandemic is over and travel is back to normal, interest in the program will startup.

For more information on the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot Project go here.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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