Survey of professional services and health-care providers shows changing market

(Gazette file photo)

County providers stretching to serve two demographics; succession planning and workforce pose challenges



With an increasingly aging population, need for professional services and health care in Prince Edward County is on the rise, but service providers in that field anticipate challenges in accessing workforce and infrastructure.

That’s the message the County’s community development department received as it surveyed 60 local businesses in the sector as part of its second business retention and expansion survey.

Community development co-ordinator Trevor Crowe indicated in a report to the community and economic development commission that after the department studied the manufacturing and construction sectors in 2016, it picked professional services and health care because of the six key factors.

The sector plays an important role in attracting an serving an aging population and it influences resident and investment attraction. The department also wanted to know how it can support physician recruitment. The three other considerations each address known barriers to expansion and service retention — limited commercial space and parking, a shortage of a qualified labour pool, and the issue of succession planning.

Starting in May, the department identified professional services businesses based on the North American Industry Classification System. It includes accountants and book keepers, financial advisors, architectural and engineering firms, design services and legal services, social service organizations, insurance providers and the health-care sector.

Of the businesses identified, some 86 per cent were locally owned and operated and three-quarters operated with 10 employees or less.  Some 52 per cent of the businesses had plans to expand in the next 18 months, and more than three-quarters of those business indicated they’d need to increase their workforce to complete that goal.

Some 83 per cent of businesses stated they believed demand is growing for their services, which was significantly higher than the provincial average of 57 per cent. Only one business expected its sales to decrease.

Crowe noted many “cited responding to the aging demographic with increased needs as the main reason for the growth.” Some also said growth is occurring due to the migration of people from urban areas.

In particular, the health-care sector is anticipating a growing demand for service over the next 10-15 years. Some respondents cited a need for the promotion of non-physician health professionals to meet demand, while others suggested a non-emergency walk-in clinic could help. With an aging population, health-care workers also indicated they’re seeing more complex care cases with some patients requiring care that isn’t offered locally.

A primary challenge identified in meeting growing demand is finding an adequate workforce. Some 78 per cent of employers in the sector said finding workers was difficult, which is way above the provincial average of 49 per cent.  Crowe noted respondents lack necessary skills — including English, mathematical, or technical qualifications — or relevant experience, especially compared to skilled labour pools in urban areas.

Sustaining and attracting that workforce has also provided challenging. Nine respondents cited commute as a difficulty. Lower costs of living outside the municipality was a factor and weather conditions and bridge closures were sometimes an issue with a service based on reliable schedules. Some employees have opted to relocate to areas like Belleville or Napanee to do the same jobs for the same pay.  A lack of affordable housing stock to purchase or rent over a long term was also presented. Some businesses also said it’s difficult to source housing without a central listing.

The advancing age of business owners themselves also provides cause for concern. Of the 60 business owners, 17 indicated they’d be retiring in the next five years. Only three said they have a succession plan in place, while six said they are waiting. Nine said they’re looking for a replacement but haven’t found anyone qualified and two indicated their corporations would find someone to operate the businesses. Another two plan to close.

The county’s mix of young and old has also posed challenges as expectations are different by demographics — older customers generally preferring one-on-one communication, while younger patrons prefer digital communication. Some 62 per cent have said they see their services changing as a result of younger demographics.  Several respondents indicated they’ve been slow to respond to changing trends.

Another interesting wrinkle Crowe identified is that professional services businesses see Picton and Wellington as very distinct markets. Seldom will clients travel between the communities and it was noted Wellington residents prefer going to Belleville or Trenton for service rather than Picton. Many have concluded the two areas must be served separately.

Both urban areas also have limitations in necessary infrastructure. Eight Picton-based businesses said a lack of parking affected their businesses. Of 13 respondents actively looking for space, seven are looking specifically in Picton and three are looking in Wellington. Many would prefer more modern spaces than those available with efficient heating and cooling and high-speed Internet. Others are also seeking quieter locations in which to practice.

The community development department identified 11 strategies in response to the findings.

It suggests the municipality could address the workforce issues by continuing initiatives that support the creation of affordable long-term housing and continue efforts to attract and retain youth that can sustain businesses.  Efforts to attract qualified workforce through promotion of the county as an attractive lifestyle destination and to train the local labour pool through the Sector Workforce Partnership would also be continued.  Specifically for the health-care field, the municipality would continue with its physician recruitment and retention committee.

To provide support for the businesses, the department recommends bi-monthly networking event and regular workshops and training opportunities. Among those workshops, dedicated workshops for succession planning would encourage early planning and assist with the logistics and red tape involved with transferring a business.

Strategies to promote healthy, active seniors and to understand the root causes of health-care issues may take some of the pressure away from that sector specifically. The Prince Edward Age-Friendly Community Plan could be a guide.

Finally, the department is recommending the exploration of pitching  a health and community services centre to investors or developers in an attempt to collocate likeminded professionals. Those businesses could share costs for reception, waiting areas, and practitioner spaces.

Director of community development Neil Carbone said an important takeaway was the spectrum of services seniors require.

“We know our seniors rely on good quality health-care services. What we have delved lesss into are all those other services seniors require — ancillary health care, accounting, legal services, estate services, things like that,” he said. There’s this idea there’s more than just health-care services we need to address to make sure the county continues to be an age-friendly place.”

Carbone said the study will inform the department’s activities moving forward. It will be presented to council and to a number of community stakeholder groups in the near future.