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Whalley Options Community Services Society workers say a wide range of employers and employees are coming through their doors

On the front lines of Surrey’s employment services sector, business is booming.

Options Community Services Society, located in the Whalley area of the city, is one of five employment services branches contracted by WorkBC in Surrey. Lorena Cottrell, an employer relations and job developer for the office on 140 Street, said the society is seeing a little bit of everything right now.

“We can see the growth,” Cottrell said. “I’ve been in Surrey for 10 years, and the changes that I’ve seen lately are incredible.”

The Surrey Board of Trade estimates that the city is adding 1,200 people a month to its population base through immigration, migration and birth. Recent City of Surrey demographic and population studies predict that the city will add 330,000 or more residents over the next 30 years – a 65% increase. This means an additional 160,000 jobs will be needed, doubling the current existing workforce of the area. Every day, close to 40 people are being added into the mix, and many of those who are looking for work come with unique circumstances or skill sets.

“We have everything from construction, agricultural, manufacturing,” Cottrell said. “We have seasonal work that is starting, we have landscaping, painting, general labour work.”

The net hiring outlook – defined as the percentage of employers planning to hire minus the percentage of those planning to decrease their staffing levels – for Surrey in 2015’s second quarter is 27%, according to the results of a Manpower survey released March 10.

The Options office in Whalley is also bracing for the coming closure of Surrey’s Target store located just a few blocks away, one of 133 outlets the company is shutting down. However, Mahrukh Khuram, an employment counsellor who works alongside Cottrell, said the opening of a No Frills store nearby should help bridge some of those workers into new jobs. There’s also the coming agricultural season, still a major booster of employment in Surrey, in which seasonal workers are hired at multiple food processing plants.

“There’s a little bit more manufacturing coming aboard,” added Cottrell when asked to pick the sector with the biggest increase in numbers of employees looking for jobs and employers looking for workers. “And even the manufacturing companies already set up are trying to expand within themselves, so hopefully this will continue to be a growth area.”

On top of that, a large number of seniors are finding out they didn’t tuck enough money away for retirement, resulting in the return of many to the labour force.

However, Khuram said, the main bulk of people who walk through Options’ doors are between 29 and 40 years old and from a varied background – but are competing for the same types of jobs.

“There’s two categories basically of what we see. One is people who don’t have a lot of skills or qualifications and they’re looking to get into labour positions or entry-level positions. The other part is skilled immigrant workers who don’t have any local qualifications, so that’s why they’re also targeting those same entry-level jobs. Because their skills back home don’t translate right away and they’re just using these jobs as survival jobs, and their long-term goals are, of course, going back to their own professions.”

With an influx of new immigrants also come challenges. Workers who have a high skill level in their particular field, but a low Canadian Language Benchmark (CLB) level are presenting hurdles for Options and WorkBC centres around the region. Khuram said most employers are asking a minimum of CLB Level 5 of potential workers as a condition of employment. The ratings system ranks English-language skills on a scale of 1 to 12, broken down into three stages of listening, reading, writing and speaking. One of the prerequisites for a Level 5 rating is being able to speak in both a formal and casual setting, plus being able to understand a range of common vocabulary, both written and spoken.

“Working with employers one on one, that is one of the first things they are saying to us now is they must have strong English skills,” said Cottrell.

Khuram said Options can help validate foreign credentials but stressed that learning the language is something that takes time through coursework – something else it offers.

“We come across this hurdle where there are new immigrant programs but we are unable to train them unless they can speak English,” she added. “Sometimes what happens is they get stuck in survival work and then they lose their new immigrant funding.”

Surrey has long been pegged as a bedroom community of employees who get in their cars or hop on the SkyTrain to commute to other parts of the region. But this perception is changing, said Cottrell.

“When people are moving here now we’re finding they don’t want to go anywhere else. They don’t want to cross the bridges anymore; they want to find employment in Surrey and live in Surrey.” •

With files from Emma
Crawford Hampel

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