Quebec’s economy minister says the province has more than enough would-be workers to fill vacant positions even amid the labor shortage.

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Quebec’s economy minister is shutting the door to a hike in permanent immigration quotas, saying the province has more than enough would-be workers to fill vacant positions even amid a long-standing labor shortage.

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Young people, recent retirees and the unemployed should be sufficient to help Quebec overcome its workforce scarcity issue, Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon said Friday. Temporary immigration quotas could also be raised to help companies cope with the problem, he said.

“I reject the link that is often made between the labor shortage and the uncontrolled increase in permanent immigration,” Fitzgibbon said during an event hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal.

“The worker pool is there,” he later told reporters. “I think we have to start by taking care of our people in Quebec to help them. This can happen rapidly.”

About 240,000 positions are currently unfilled in Quebec — only 13 per cent of which require a university degree, Fitzgibbon said. Unemployment in Quebec hit a record low of 3.9 per cent in April, 1.3 percentage points lower than the national average.

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The labor situation has prompted several business organizations to lobby for an increase in permanent immigration. The Conseil du patronat du Québec, the province’s biggest business lobby group, wants all provincial parties to commit to lifting annual immigration levels to at least 80,000 — from 50,000 currently — for at least the next four years.

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“Our permanent immigration has been declining for the past five years, and we need to catch up,” Karl Blackburn, head of the Conseil, said in an open letter published Thursday.

Boosting immigration to 80,000 is “not desirable, and it won’t happen,” Fitzgibbon said.

About 200,000 “young people” are currently not working, studying or training, while another 180,000 Quebecers are unemployed, Fitzgibbon said. What’s more than 80,000 people aged 60 and over could be persuaded to re-enter the workforce with the right incentives, he said. Increases in temporary immigration could also cut the jobs surplus.

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Close to 50,000 qualified workers and 19,000 businesspeople have applied to move to Quebec, but their files are still being reviewed by the federal government, Fitzgibbon added.

Quebec set aside $2.9 billion in November to help retrain workers over the coming years. This spring, Finance Minister Eric Girard unlocked additional sums as part of the 2022-23 budget.

“The sums of money allocated to the Labor and Employment Ministry are phenomenal,” Fitzgibbon said. “With good re-qualification, good training, I think we can help.”

Asked how soon the labor situation could improve, Fitzgibbon said as few as six months could be necessary.

Labor Minister Jean Boulet “has a lot of pressure because he realizes that there are people who can work but aren’t working,” Fitzgibbon said.

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While Quebec’s economy is continuing to recover from the pandemic’s body blows, growth is slowing. Quebec’s latest budget is based on a 2022 growth forecast of four per centthough Fitzgibbon indicated the actual figure may fall short.

He said “2022 should be a good year. Economic growth should be positive, but it will be lower than 2021. I think we’ll have two-three per cent growth. If the Bank of Canada has to raise rates again to control inflation, if rates go up to two or 2.5 per cent, there could be an economic slowdown in 2023. Will it be a recession? We don’t know. We have to be prepared to react with aid programs for companies that have short-term issues.”

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Quebec is also ready to help individuals further if inflation continues to spike.

Premier François Legault “has clearly said we will be listening,” Fitzgibbon said. “There are a lot of demands regarding gas, the food basket, rents. Mr. Legault is looking at this with Mr. Girard, and if needed we are going to do something. It’s a problem for the most vulnerable people.”

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