The Rural Northern Immigration Pilot project has officially kicked off, city council was told earlier this week.

Sault Ste. Marie is the first community to launch the pilot project by officially accepting applications under the program guidelines.

A goal of establishing 100 primary candidates and their families in Sault Ste. Marie has been set for the first year of the pilot project.

The city was one of several communities selected to participate in the Rural Northern Immigration Pilot project and will be one of the first to accept immigrants with the skill set needed to fill the job gaps in the community created by the aging population.

Stakeholders have already received training from Immigration Canada earlier this fall in anticipation that applicants and employers are able to be matched up to launch the pilot project.

Before the program even launched, several thousands of emails and resumes were sent through the Welcome to Sault Ste. Marie website from around the world.

Travis Anderson, FutureSSM project manager said more than 4,000 expressions of interest were received since June and about 2,500 resumes. Those numbers are expected to spike with the official program launch and increased promotion.

The website is linked with the Government of Canada’s site, which attracts thousands of potential immigrants.

Interest was strong from Nigeria, Columbia and Mexico.

Anderson said that there are already about six applications on file from individuals already in the community on temporary work permits or living in Sault Ste. Marie without permanent residency status.

“Those applications will get processed quicker because they are already here and working and contributing to the community. They have moved here for a job but may not be establishing roots because they don’t have permanent residency status yet,” Anderson said.

It’s hoped those applications are processed quickly through Immigration Canada because those applicants have already cleared some of the hurdles and requirements, he said.

A second stream of applicants expected to be processed quickly include those who are from outside Canada but considered newcomers and living elsewhere in Canada.

This acceptance process could take a little longer because employers and applicants need to be matched up and a job offer needs to be issued to the applicant, Anderson said.

“It’s important that the applicants not only have a job offer but that the community committee also sees that they will be a good fit for Sault Ste. Marie,” he said.

That ‘fit’ by the committee, which includes representatives from the Sault Ste. Marie Career Centre, the Local Immigration Partnership, the Economic Development Corp. and FutureSSM, includes examining factors like personal experiences and lifestyle, hobbies, alignment with local cultural groups or likeminded people.

“There has to be balance that includes employment and the communities needs and we want to make sure that the applicant will be able to adapt to Sault Ste. Marie so there is a strong chance for retention,” Anderson said.

Once an individual receives permanent residency, there are no requirements to live or work in a specific community, he said.

Anderson said the process also allows individuals to immigrate to Canada under a temporary work permit. That process could take as little as three months, with the longer permanent residency process continuing and taking up to another 12 months to complete.

“We were very well set up for an early start because of what we were already doing on the labour force side,” Anderson said. “The groundwork had already been done.”

Under the regulations of the pilot project, the immigrants must have a job offer and skills must match those needed for the positions. Knowledge of English is also a requirement.

The website is now open to applicants and employers.

Applicants must ensure they meet all the immigration requirements including a job offer and match the community’s requirements.

The community’s requirements are based on a point system process that analyzes job skills, job availability, age and work experience of the applicant, former work or schooling in Sault Ste. Marie and spousal and family information.

Only when all criteria is met will the community recommendation committee provide a nomination letter which can be used to apply for a permanent residency application, the website states.

For employers, businesses must be located within Sault Ste. Marie and be in existence for at least three years and not be in violation of Immigration Refugee and Protection Act or have outstanding orders under the Ontario Employment Act or Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The employer must also present an offer of employment to the candidate that includes a full-time job status, reasonable wages and prove that the applicant has the skills for the job.

Employers must also demonstrate they can welcome and accommodate foreign workers in the workplace.

Council also gave the nod to allow staff to access funds from the Ontario Labour Market Partnership to support the delivery of the Rural Northern Immigration Pilot project.

The city will apply for funding of $250,000.

The money will be used to assist with the first year of administering and marketing the program and hire a coordinator, who will develop a strategic community attraction campaign to attract and retain skilled workers to the community. Other funding sources are currently being investigated to help fund other years of the program, a report to council states.

The city’s aging and declining population and low birth rate has resulted in a population decrease of 2.11 per cent between 2011-2016.

The city’s median age is listed at 47, somewhat higher than the provincial average of 41, and considered the oldest of the large city centres in Northern Ontario.

“There will be 1.5 times as many people leaving the workforce then there are available to enter it in the coming years,” the report states. “With over a quarter of the workforce older then 55, local employers will be looking to replace up to 9,000 workers in the coming years.”

Sault Ste. Marie’s labour force needs include skilled workers in the IT sector, finance, health care, engineering and skilled trades.