Calgary, AB — Ottawa has announced a new immigration program to make it easier for Canadian business to hire the workers most urgently needed — skilled tradespeople.
The new stream for workers in fields such as construction and manufacturing should be set up later this year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said in Calgary, the financial heart of Canada’s oil and gas industry and a city all too familiar with skilled labour shortages.
“In Canada we’ve been welcoming historic high numbers of immigrants, partly to help us fuel our prosperity in the future and fill growing labour shortages,” Kenney said. “But, to be honest, our immigration programs haven’t been effective in addressing a lot of those shortages. Our immigration programs have become rigid and slow and passive.”
The labour market in the West is especially tight, thanks in large part to a bevy of multibillion-dollar oilsands projects on the go in northern Alberta. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers forecasts the energy industry will spend some $55 billion this year on major projects, said spokesman Travis Davies.
The Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada said in a recent report the oilsands sector will need 21,000 additional workers by 2021 — more than double the number it employed in 2011 — to compensate for both the gap left by retiring baby boomers and fill the needs of new projects. And that doesn’t account for turnover in an ultra-competitive labour market.
It also doesn’t include the ripple effects of that growth on the wider economy, like the need for new homes and offices to be constructed, or demand for more service industry staffers.
There are some avenues for newcomers to become permanent residents, like the Provincial Nominee Program and the Canadian Experience Class. Kenney said those have been helpful, but insufficient.
“There are still huge gaps. We’re talking about tens if not hundreds of thousands of shortages in the skilled trades predicted in the next decade alone.”
Skilled tradespeople make up a small percentage of immigrants coming to Canada under the current program, even though the resource and construction sectors are clamouring for welders, pipefitters, electricians and other skilled trades.
Criteria required to enter Canada under the existing program put tradespeople at a disadvantage because the rules are geared toward professionals, said Kenney.
“Let’s be honest, we don’t need more people coming to Canada with advanced degrees that end up driving taxi cabs and end up working in convenience stores. That’s a waste of human capital,” he said.
Businesses know better than the government what sorts of skills are needed and should have the flexibility to head- hunt workers overseas or even just south of the border where unemployment is high and the skillsets are a good fit for Canada, he added.
“Frankly, we’ve been selecting a lot of people through our skilled worker program who end up unemployed and underemployed while businesses have skill shortages,” Kenney said.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the new program is an improvement from the tendency to use temporary foreign workers to back-stop labour shortages.
But he said he remains “deeply troubled” that there are some 1.5 million unemployed workers within Canada that could fill the gap if they had the right training.