The Canadian Construction Association (CCA) and a group of Alberta business associations are pushing for immigration reform to deal with a shortage of skilled labour.
The initiatives are happening at the same time the federal government is proposing changes to the skilled worker program.
"Canada's current immigration system does not adequately address the needs of the Canadian construction industry or the projected growth of the Canadian economy," said Michael Atkinson, president of the CCA.
"On the surface, the reforms outlined sound like they would go a long way to addressing the challenges that employers currently face to bring in skilled workers, which would ultimately contribute to a more competitive Canadian economy."
Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney outlined plans for immigration reform, during a keynote address to the National Metropolis Conference on March 1.
The minster highlighted changes to the Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSWP), which would require applicants to have a job offer in Canada or experience in one of 29 occupations in demand.
The Federal Skilled Worker Program is Canada's most important pathway for immigrants to obtain permanent residency.
For several years, the CCA has been advocating for reforms to the FSWP, which make the immigration system more user friendly to the construction industry.
While Kenney was talking about a vision for immigration reform, a group of 19 business organizations called the Alberta Coalition for Action on Labour Shortages (ACALS) is asking the federal government to take action to deal with labour shortages in western Canada.
"Overall, what the group is saying is that we need recognition that the pending labour shortage has got to move up on the public policy agenda, in order for the economy to move forward," said Bill Stewart, vice president of Merit Contractors Association in Alberta, which is a member of the ACALS.
"The federal government knows there are labour market needs that could be better met by looking at how points are allocated to specific sectors under the skilled worker program."
Both Stewart and Atkinson agree that the current immigration system puts too much emphasis on language proficiency and post secondary education.
A maximum of 16 points (out of a total of 100) is awarded for high proficiency in the first official language.
Education points are awarded based on the credential and the number of associated years of education.
Skilled tradespeople often have a credential in their trade, but not the required years of education, so they lose points.
The latest data released by Statistics Canada last week shows that 36,770 skilled workers obtained Canadian permanent residency in 2011.
Skilled tradespeople make up a very small share of the total number of these people, who are entering Canada under the FSWP.
Added to this problem, a large backlog has developed over the last several years, as applications have outstripped annual processing targets.
As a result, there are significant delays in processing applications, with some application not being looked at for more than four years.
As of June 30th, 313,825 applications remained in the backlog.
"Regardless of the backlog, the current system does not work very well for the trades or technical requirements," said Stewart. "Under the current system, only 3.0 per cent of the people have a trades background."
In response to this problem, Citizenship and Immigration Canada is proposing to increase the maximum points awarded for proficiency in the first official language from 16 to 20, while establishing minimum language requirements, depending on the immigrant's occupational skill level.
According to Kenney, the new points system will place greater emphasis on the importance of language and recognize that a doctor and a welder need a different language ability to successfully integrate in Canada.
The Construction Sector Council forecasts rising labour requirements for new construction in Alberta between 2011 and 2019 will increase the labour force by 30,000 workers.
At the same time, expected exits from the labour force due to retirements and mortality total 35,000 workers.
Half of the total requirements will be met with 26,000 new entrants, which means there is a shortage of 40,000 construction workers that will need to come from outside Alberta.
The ACALS argues that the reform of the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program is an important part of an overall strategy to fill this labour shortage.
For example, the Alberta Federation of Labour argues that calls to expand the TFW are designed to drive down the wages in the province.
"Blowing the doors off the TFW program is not the solution that Alberta needs," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
Instead, McGowan recommends that the government follow the advice of former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed and set a more reasonable pace of development in the oilsands.
He said that a more reasonable pace of development will allow labour needs to be met by the existing labour force in Canada.
Journal of Commerce, Wed Mar 7 2012
Byline: Richard Gilbert