With Alberta's economy steaming ahead, industry leaders are welcoming a new federal immigration program designed to ease a shortage of skilled tradespeople.
The federal government announced Tuesday it is creating a separate queue for foreign tradespeople in an effort to combat labour shortages in construction and resource-based industries.
The new stream for tradespeople will place a greater emphasis on their practical training and work experience, rather than formal education.
"In the past it was virtually impossible for skilled tradespeople to get in through our rigid economic programs at the federal level," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said in a speech at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.
"And this meant that the Polish welder . . . American tradespeople couldn't get in through the skilled worker program.
"They didn't have a postsecondary degree."
Foreign workers are assessed against a 100-point grid examining several factors, including proficiency in English or French, education, work experience and whether they have arranged employment.
Proficiency in one of Canada's official languages remains important for skilled workers, said Kenney, but there will be more flexibility for tradespeople.
"You don't need university-level English to weld pipe. You need a workable level of English," he said.
Kenney said he hopes the new program, with a revamped grid for tradespeople, will be in place by the end of 2012.
The minister estimated the program may only see a few thousand applicants at first, but expects that number to increase. "It will probably start as a fairly small stream," Kenney told reporters afterward. "It could grow into the tens of thousands."
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers welcomed the news, saying the industry is expecting to spend $55 billion on capital projects in 2012. "It's going to require a lot of skilled labour to address this growth," spokesman Travis Davies said.
Hiring Canadiantrained workers and increasing mobility between provinces are favoured methods of finding workers, but Davies said those measures alone won't meet the industry's needs.
"We have to look beyond our borders," he said.
Alberta's largest labour organization, however, is concerned the scheme is moving in the wrong direction.
"The real question is whether we should be opening the floodgates to tradespeople from outside the country when we have 1.4 million Canadians looking for work," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "We're concerned that giving employers quicker access to foreign journeyman is going to remove the incentive for construction employers to take on Canadian apprentices and train the next generation of Canadian tradespeople."
Canada admitted 48,678 people via the skilled worker program in 2010, but the government estimates only about three per cent of them are skilled tradespeople.
Overall, Canada has allowed an average of 254,000 permanent residents into the country per year since 2006.
The announcement Tuesday is the latest in a series of reforms to the immigration system recently unveiled by the federal government.
While the oil and gas sector may be a beneficiary of Tuesday's announcement, it's not the only sector concerned about a labour crunch.
"Labour shortages are the biggest economic drag on Alberta," said Ben Brunnen, chief economist at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.
"The challenges our members are having are attracting and maintaining good employees. The demand in Alberta is across the board."
Dawn Farrell, president and CEO of TransAlta, said finding skilled workers is "a greater and greater problem almost every day" for the power company.
While TransAlta struggles to find workers in Alberta, it has plants in the U.S. with high rates of unemployment, said Farrell. "We're working together with the federal government on how to address that," she said.
All of the government's recent reforms are aimed at better matching foreign-trained workers with jobs here and reducing the time it takes to process their applications, said Kenney.
Part of the government's plan is creating a job bank of qualified applicants that prospective employers could use to find workers.
The government also plans to hire an outside company to evaluate the credentials of foreign skilled worker applicants in licensed professions, such as medicine or law.
The idea, Kenney said, is to give would-be newcomers an idea of how their credentials stack up against someone with a similar Canadian education. "We can give those applicants an indication of whether they have a better than even chance of getting their licence in Canada," he said.
Calgary immigration lawyer Raj Sharma said the dedicated stream for tradespeople should help address labour shortages.
But Sharma added he's concerned the government is placing too high an emphasis on matching newcomers with specific occupations.
Demand for certain jobs and professions can come and go, Sharma said and added it's also important to focus on an immigrant's work ethic and ability to adapt. "Looking at attributes, rather than a job description, is probably better," he said.
To speed up processing times for skilled worker applications, Kenney said it was necessary for the government to eliminate a huge backlog and close the files of anyone who applied before the end of February 2008.
Opponents have criticized the move, which may affect up to 300,000 people, but Kenney said Canada was losing too many skilled workers who opted to settle elsewhere instead of waiting years to get into Canada.
"The best and brightest were choosing not to come here," he said.
Sharma called the action a "tragedy," saying it unfairly penalized applicants who tried coming to Canada legally instead of jumping the queue with illegitimate refugee claims or by sneaking into Canada.
"It's not their fault (the government) couldn't process. These people put their lives on hold," he said.
Calgary Herald, Wed Apr 11 2012
Byline: Jason Van Rassel