A pilot program that would fast-track the immigration process for trades workers began accepting applications Wednesday is a welcome change for the oilsands, says Oil Sands Developers Group Executive Director Ken Chapman.
However, Chapman says the program doesn't address challenges the natural resource sector has with immigration policies and as a result, the demand for blue-collar workers in Wood Buffalo and the oilsands will likely intensify in 2013.
The changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers program will reduce much of the red tape needed for trained foreign workers that specialize in 43 occupations. Some of these jobs include heavy-duty mechanics, ironworkers, millwrights, electrical work and welders — all jobs that are in short supply in Alberta.
Only 3,000 workers will be admitted through the program, a number Chapman says is problematic.
"That number alone is nowhere near to meeting the needs of Wood Buffalo or the oilsands, let alone other big projects in Canada," says Chapman. "We need skilled workers quickly and we're still competing with other markets with their own labour shortages."
While manufacturing has wavered in the last ten years, natural resources jobs have emerged as key industries for Canada's economic success.
British Columbia and Saskatchewan are both beginning to exploit their shale gas and oil deposits on a massive scale, while the territories, Ontario and Quebec have increased activities in their natural mineral and metal mining sector.
The program, titled the Federal Skilled Trades Program, gives preference to applicants with Canadian job offers and have a basic knowledge of English or French. At least two years of work experience in their trade is a bonus.
"Canadian employers have long been asking for ways to get the skilled tradespeople they need to meet demands in many industries across the country," said Immigration Minister Jason Kenney on Wednesday. "We've listened to their concerns and created this program in response."
In July, the Alberta Federation of Labour told Today they were skeptical of the program and were worried that it would allow fewer safeguards for foreign workers.
Nancy Furlong, secretary-treasurer of the AFL, pointed to a 2010 provincial report that found 74% of employers who used the Temporary Foreign Worker program had violated the Employment Standards Act regarding pay rates and record keeping.
"Canadians should get first crack at these jobs. But the Harper government is more interested in the bottom line of their friends in the non-union construction sector," she said. "The result is employers can use these workers in ways that Canadians might not tolerate,"
To meet the labour demands in northeastern Alberta, Chapman says more needs to be done to make the region more accommodating to the needs of foreign workers.
"The last census saw about 15% of the population here came from outside of Canada. That should be sufficient to have, at least on a visiting basis, immigration counselings so workers can deal with immigration issues here, not in Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary," he said. "We need to give them more flexibility, make it easier to become citizens, easier for their families to come over if they're here long-term."
Chapman would also like to see language classes for promising skilled workers, rather than see them turned away due to a language barrier.
"If they're qualified and good on the tools but have problems in language, let's help them and not reject them," he said.
Fort McMurray Today, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013
Byline: Vincent McDermott