Labour shortages: How one entrepreneur is fighting back

4 minutes read

David Deveau

Every morning, six buses travel up to 100 kilometres to pick up workers and bring them back to David Deveau’s lobster processing operation on the southwest tip of Nova Scotia.

The buses are part of Deveau’s efforts to find enough workers to staff Riverside Lobster International. But he falls short every day by 25 to 30 workers or more.

“It’s very disappointing, especially when you dream big,” Deveau says. “I’d like to keep growing, but we’re in a situation where we’re limited by the workforce.”

In many respects, Deveau’s business is in the right place at the right time. International demand for Canadian lobster is soaring and so are prices. Deveau describes his location as “awesome” because he’s close to some of the most productive lobster fishing areas in the world.

But the chronic labour shortfall is not only hampering Deveau’s current operations, but also standing in the way of his plans to expand into a series of new activities including processing lobster shells.

Company’s output is exported

Riverside Lobster, a BDC client, processes 5.5 million kilograms of live and cooked lobster annually at its facilities in Meteghan River, Nova Scotia. Almost all the lobster is exported to booming markets in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

The labour problem is getting worse with the retirement of more and more baby boomers from Riverside Lobster’s workforce of 270. On top of the workers he’s already short, Deveau says he’d like to find as many as 100 more for his planned expansion projects. These include moving into crab processing and transforming lobster shells for use in pet food and industrial applications.

More businesses will have difficulty finding labour as baby boomers retire and the growth of Canada’s workforce slows, according to a new BDC study entitled Future-Proof Your Business: Adapting to Technology and Demographic Trends. The problem will be most acute in Atlantic Canada where projected population growth will be negative in coming years.

Riverside Lobster is doing everything it can to find and keep workers. Besides providing the bus transportation, it pays well over minimum wage and offers employees a pension plan and health benefits. It has also attempted to make work less physically demanding for older workers with the addition of new equipment. It’s even considering subsidizing an on-site daycare to help attract younger workers.

“We try to hit every angle. But it’s hard,” Deveau says. “Labour is the crunch. It’s everything—the key to success.”

I like to have control over my destiny. When you wake up in the morning it’s nice to have a say in what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it.


Entrepreneur says immigration holds the key

The only long-term solution is immigration, Deveau says. He’s complimentary about the work ethic and positive attitude of the immigrants he’s currently employing and wants to hire more.

Riverside Lobster uses the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program to bring in a few dozen employees each year, mostly from Mexico and Chile.

But Deveau says he prefers to hire permanent residents and is participating in the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program. It was launched this year to allow companies to hire skilled workers or international graduates who can apply to become permanent residents. Riverside Lobster hopes to bring in 20 to 30 workers a year over three years under the program.

Hard work and entrepreneurship have always been a part of Deveau’s life. His father owned a small fish processing plant and Deveau built a sawmill when he was just 22. Besides cutting lumber, he also made crates for holding lobster from scrap wood.

When plastic lobster crates became popular, he decided to set up Riverside Lobster in 1997 to buy and sell live lobster. In 2009, he opened a facility to cook and freeze lobster.

He says owning a business is the only life for him.

“I like to have control over my destiny. When you wake up in the morning it’s nice to have a say in what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it.”

Invested in state-of-the art machinery

Last year, Riverside Lobster made a major investment in a high-pressure processing machine to improve lobster meat extraction. The company also bought a new steam cooker that requires less fuel and improves yield and quality.

Deveau says he’s going to keep trying to find workers, but adds the government has to do more to address labour shortages.

“We have to take action to handle this problem because it’s not going to go away.”