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Surveys ask: Is there really a labour shortage in Canada?

Ottawa - Is there a skilled labour shortage in Canada? Many employers say there is, but even some business surveys and the government’s own research suggests the evidence is at best slim and sporadic.


Ottawa – Is there a skilled labour shortage in Canada? Many employers say there is, but even some business surveys and the government’s own research suggests the evidence is at best slim and sporadic.

Amid the brouhaha triggered in April 2013 by a contractor of the Royal Bank to bring in temporary foreign workers to replace the bank’s Canadian ones, opposition parties were itching for Parliament’s return to hammer the Harper government over the decision last spring to relax rules making it easier to import workers.

The government is getting some backing from the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME). The lobby group released an internal survey of members showing half reporting difficulty finding qualified workers, and expecting the problem to worsen in the next five years.

The organization’s vice-president of national policy, Mathew Wilson, says shortages are widespread but particularly acute in certain industries and regions, particularly Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Newfoundland.

“The companies we talked to in Saskatchewan will literally hire anyone who shows up to work every day,” he said. “They are that desperate.”

Wilson says there has been plenty of jobs lost in the manufacturing sector – including 71,000 in the last year alone – but adds that there’s a skills disconnect with those that have been laid off in Ontario and the needs of the expanding resource sector in the West. As well, getting workers to move is difficult, he says.

“A lot of the manufacturing jobs are not in the biggest centres of Canada,” said Wilson. “It’s hard for a company in a town of Saskatchewan, population 300 people, to be able to draw in workers from Toronto. It’s hard for someone in Windsor to go to the peninsula in Newfoundland to work in the mines.”

The survey results are at times, in line with alarmist declarations by government ministers – including Finance’s Jim Flaherty and Human Resource Minister Diane Finley – that Canada faces a critical skills mismatch that is impeding economic growth.

But they are at odds with other studies and surveys, including one from Finley’s own department, that suggests the problem may be confined to a minority of industries.

In a report titled Imbalances Between Labour Demand and Supply, 2011-2020 prepared by researchers at Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, the conclusion drawn is that there is no general labour shortage today, nor will there be in the next decade despite the aging workforce.

The report found no general disconnect when it compared the 6.5 million job openings expected over the next 10 years to anticipated skill levels likely to come out of Canada’s high schools, colleges and universities, as well as from immigrants.

“With limited incidence of imbalances between labour demand and supply in recent years, and with the projections showing similar levels of job openings and job seekers for each broad skill level, no major imbalances by skill level are projected over the next decade,” the authors concluded.

The researchers concede that the finding does not preclude imbalances existing in specific occupations – or regions – and in fact say they expect shortages in high-skilled industries such as health, management, trades, transport and equipment and especially in the resource sector.

A Bank of Canada business survey also undercut the job shortage story. It found the percentage of employers reporting labour shortages restricting their ability to meet demand fell for the second consecutive quarter and “is below the survey average.”