Hiring is tough — especially for employers looking for bilingual talent. Here's why

WATCH: Statistics Canada Chief Éric Caron Malenfant said on Wednesday that according to the 2021 census, the number of people who speak languages other than the country’s official English or French is growing at a "faster rate" than before.

An already-tight labour pool and increasingly restrictive language laws in Quebec are making it that much more difficult to recruit bilingual talent, employers and experts tell Global News.

A Statistics Canada report released Wednesday shows the proportion people fluent in both French and English in provinces outside of Quebec diminished between 2016 and 2021, even as the total bilingual population grew across the country over those same five years. The proportion of French-first speakers declined in almost every province and territory as well.

The relative scarcity of bilingual talent comes as Canada’s unemployment rate sits at a historic low of 4.9 per cent.

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That makes the challenge of recruiting French and English speakers at Le Germain’s two Ottawa hotels that much more difficult for the hospitality brand.

Marie Boissonnault, the talent and culture coordinator at Germain Hotels, says the proximity of Ottawa to Quebec means the company gets a steady flow of guests from the neighbouring province who expect to be served in their first language.

That, combined with the company’s own French-Canadian origins and its foothold in the capital of a bilingual country, puts the language demand higher up the list than for most employers.

“It’s really important to us to be able to serve in French. That’s where we come from,” Boissonnault says.

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Finding any candidate and on-boarding them quickly has been a challenge as of late, she says, but putting the French-English requirements on top of that means Germain has to make concessions.

The company prioritizes bilingualism among its front-line staff, but finding talent to fill all of those roles often isn’t possible right now.

“(If) we have a good candidate that doesn’t speak French, but that checks off all the other boxes, then we go with it, because at some point, if we have somebody like this it’s better than not having anybody at all,” Boissonnault says.

John Fleischauer, CEO of Ottawa-based hiring agency Pivot + Edge, says when companies put the bilingual qualifier on a job posting, recruitment becomes that much harder.

“The more bullet points you put on the list, you’re always kind of filtering down that pool to fewer and fewer people,” he says.

Fleischauer says that, like Le Germain, other companies quickly realize when they have a list of candidates in front of them that sometimes bilingualism drops from a “must have” to a “nice to have.”

“For the most part, they go on the path of, ‘We’ll hire someone Anglophone and ideally train them in French over time.’”

Le Germain does not expect its new hires to learn French, though it does have small internal sessions for non-bilingual staff to teach them the basics of holding a conversation or learn common subjects that come up in the course of their work at a hotel such as: où est la salle de bain? (where is the washroom)?

The hotels also make sure to pair English-only staff with at least one other co-worker who speaks French on a shift to make sure the bilingual service is always on offer.

Boissonnault notes that no employee is mandated to become bilingual, but entry-level staff who speak both languages will “most likely” be given opportunities to advance.

Adding to the hiring challenges for some Quebec-based companies are new provincial French-language requirements.

Patrick Huynh, CEO of Montreal-based fintech firm Fiska, says the provincial government’s new language law, Bill 96, has made recruitment even more difficult for his burgeoning company which does most of its business in English.

The bill, which went into effect in June, clarified and set new French-language requirements for companies and public sector workers in Quebec.

Among the new regulations is a requirement for government officials to communicate with new immigrants exclusively in French within six months of their arrival in the province.

Huynh says that amid a global war for talent in the tech sector, which is seeing his small company compete with the “Googles of the world,” putting the French bar on job postings is a non-starter.

“We’ve had a difficult time attracting talent to Montreal and in our experience, language is definitely one of the significant barriers,” he says.

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In the past year, Fiska has been able to hire two candidates from Europe and shelled out relocation costs for both including airfare and legal fees. While the company spent six-to-12 months on recruiting both employees, both left Fiska within six months.

“The number one factor was the requirement for French,” he says. “It just adds to their burden and they end up leaving: one, Fiska, and two, Montreal.”

Moshe Lander, economist with Concordia University, says that adding the bilingual expectation onto any job posting “shrinks the available talent pool.”

Lander says that while Bill 96 could be considered “good politics” from the Quebec government’s point of view, language laws like this “are not good economics.”

He points to the threat from countries such as Belgium, which have widespread French-English bilingualism, as being able to take jobs from Canadian workers where those languages are the selling point. Especially in a remote-first world, a call centre in Belgium could easily take sales positions from Quebec-based employers, Lander argues.

Fleischauer says that companies that have jobs that require French but see the challenges in recruiting an employee with the language proficiency will increasingly turn to third-party service providers if the job can be outsourced, rather than go through the process of on-boarding staff.

“What I’m not seeing is companies saying business stops because hiring is hard. There’s always an alternative,” he says.

If Quebec wants to remain competitive and stick to its guns on Bill 96, the province should be topping up salaries for roles with French language proficiency, Lander says.

“I think money talks better than anything,” he says. “If I dangle a job ad that says, ‘Hey, here’s the job ad, and if you speak French, it’s worth an extra $10,000 a year. Guess how many people are going to fall all over themselves to figure out the other languages that they’re missing?’”

Fiska was among a group of tech companies who signed an open letter to Quebec Premier François Legault in the spring asking to delay Bill 96 and its impending impact on the sector, but Huynh says there’s been “zero consultation” between the provincial government and industry stakeholders.

Among other Bill 96 policies is an expectation that businesses of 25 employees or more adopt a “francization” program, which would see French become the dominant language of work in the company.

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Fiska does 95 per cent of its business in English, Huynh says. The company currently has around a dozen employees but has plans to grow towards the 25-person barrier.

The Quebec tech executive is fully bilingual and says he’s a proud Montrealer but worries about his company’s future in the city if Bill 96 and other French-language recruitment hurdles remain in place.

Nearby hubs such as Ottawa would be more welcoming to Fiska, he says, than the city where he started the company.

“This is where I’m from and this is my home. So it would break my heart to have to move elsewhere,” he says. “But I also have obligations towards the company, towards our employees, our shareholders. And we would definitely contemplate setting up headquarters elsewhere.”

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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