What appeal could quiet, rural Wellington County possibly hold for people from foreign countries?

That’s what Tom Lusis thought when he walked into a job fair for new Canadians earlier this year.

As a county employee focused on economic development and talent attraction, he was there to try and convince immigrants and other newcomers to forgo jobs and lives in bigger cities in favour of rural Ontario.

He wasn’t expecting much success – and it didn’t take him long to realize how wrong he was.

“In that one day, I collected over 70 resumes,” he said.

Since then, Lusis and Wellington County have been stepping up their efforts to attract immigrants to their community.

Like other rural parts of the province, they’ve been grappling with a problem unfamiliar elsewhere – very few people in need of work, while many employers are more desperate than ever for workers.

Some companies have even taken to advertising job openings to out-of-town residents and offering them free transportation.

The problem is most pronounced in the skilled trades, but other industries are noticing it too. A recent survey in Wellington County found that 81 per cent of businesses are having trouble filling open positions.

For Lusis, the unexpected success at the newcomer job fair led him to one obvious conclusion – an “untapped resource” that local businesses might never ordinarily consider as an option.

“They continue to recruit in the same old ways in the same old populations,” he said.

“Labour force growth in Canada is going to be increasingly dependent on new immigrants and newcomers.”

Gemma Mendez-Smith, who arrived in Canada as an immigrant, has seen that issue from both sides.

Fifteen years ago, she moved to Bruce County – not exactly a typical home for people who weren’t born in midwestern Ontario, let alone Canada.

She hasn’t left.

“Because of my neighbours who helped me integrate into that community and understand how the rural community works, it made me stay there,” she said.

Now, Mendez-Smith is the executive director of the Four County Labour Market Planning Board, which helps connect workers and employers in Bruce, Grey, Huron and Perth counties.

Like Lusis, she sees immigrants as a potential solution to rural employers’ labour woes.

While new Canadians haven’t been heading for the four counties in great numbers yet, Mendez-Smith thinks that can be turned around by offering more services for new Canadians in rural towns – people who can guide them through things like obtaining a driver’s licence or finding a doctor.

“These are the things that help people feel like they know what they need to do in that community,” she said.

Lusis also sees Wellington County communities as having advantages over big cities when it comes to attracting some immigrants.

As he explains it, not all new Canadians are coming from big cities in their home countries, and the small-town feel and ample greenspace of places like Fergus and Palmerston may be more in line with the lifestyle some immigrants desire.

“We can now position ourselves as an alternative to the bigger cities,” he said.

Mendez-Smith agrees, saying she’s also seen some immigrants find economic advantages to living on more rural parts of the province.

“I’ve had immigrants tell me ‘If I had moved to Toronto or stayed in Toronto, I would not have been this successful,” she said.

There are some challenges. Not all immigrants have strong English, or the same cultural understanding of what having a job entails that a Canadian.

But, says Lusis, that’s where people like himself come in – offering support to help bridge the gap between employer and new employee.

He says he’s already talked to some new Canadians living in the Greater Toronto Area who seem interested in getting away from the hustle and bustle.

“From the newcomer side, we’re getting a lot of interest,” he said.

“Employers are the other side of the equation. We’re still working on them.”

The federal government expects to admit 300,000 immigrants into Canada in 2017 – the same number as this year.

With reporting by Marc Venema