A project manager at a sheet metal company in B.C. recently shared with me his thoughts on the labour shortage in Canada and how he's dealing with it. He chuckled. "If someone calls me up, I give them a job."
He was only half-kidding. Industries like construction, oil and gas, energy, transportation and manufacturing are reeling from a lack of unskilled labourers and skilled workers and tradespeople (i.e., welders, plumbers, electricians, sheet metal workers).
In the oil town of Fort McMurray, Alberta, labour is in such short supply and housing is so scarce that workers are being flow in from Edmonton.
A human resources director at a concrete products manufacturer in B.C. told me it's very difficult to fill their general labourer positions. "Our products are going out as fast as we can make them. The trouble is that help is often unreliable and it's difficult to schedule production around people that might not show up for work," she says.
"We've hired a couple of recent immigrants and they've worked out very well," she adds. "It is production work so there is not a huge amount of communication involved, so it's okay if their English isn't yet the greatest."
Hiring temporary foreign workers has crossed her mind, but the thought of looking into the process overwhelms her. "It seems to have a lot of government red tape. We've all got so much on our plates right now, we're all maxed out."
Adding to that is the fact that hiring temporary foreign workers is inherently a short-term solution for a problem that has far-reaching effects. Even if the construction boom tapers off after 2010, the baby boomers will still be in retiring, and Canadians still won't be making more babies, so it seems inevitable that the issue of worker shortages will keep arising. A C. D. Howe Institute report says the ratio of residents aged 65 and over to those of traditional working age (18-64) will rise from 20 per cent in 2006 to 46 per cent in 2050.
One of the Conservative government's first steps in dealing with this issue is on the temporary worker front; it launched new temporary foreign worker units in Calgary and Vancouver, September 1.
"Not a day has gone by since I was appointed minister that I have not heard about labour market shortages threatening to hold up Canada's economic growth. We're taking the first steps to addressing those needs," says Citizenship and Immigration Minister Monte Solberg.
But considering the long-term statistics (not just the shorter outlook to 2010), should temporary workers really be the focus for solutions to Canada's labour needs?
A report by the Canadian Bar Association says temporary foreign workers are not meeting the needs of labour-hungry employers, because time is spent getting the person trained on the job, particularly where safety is concerned, and just when they are up to speed, employers have to start all over again with new workers.
Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) President Gil McGowan says the AFL supports more permanent immigration to Canada. "Bringing in temporary workers, who are very vulnerable to abuse and exploitation is no solution," he says. "Immigration policy should be about building a stronger society, not about importing cheap labour to serve the short-term needs of employers."
Although the Canadian Construction Association (CCA) is advocating for an expanded temporary foreign workers program for the construction industry, it also recognizes it can't be the sole solution.
"Immigration policy must play a bigger role in meeting future labour demand," says Michael Atkinson, CCA president. In a recent letter to Prime Minister Harper, CCA recommended that the government needs to adopt a proactive immigration policy that will target individuals with needed skills and expedite their entry.
"The points system that is used to screen for permanent residents needs to be revised to put greater emphasis on experience and arranged employment in the skills required," it noted, adding that the federal government also needs to work more closely with provinces to expand provincial nominee programs.
Many provinces are looking to their provincial nominee programs to bring in immigrants who can fill their particular provincial labour needs quickly. But provinces can't do this all alone. What seems to be missing is bureaucratic and political leadership at the federal level in proposing much-needed changes to the immigration system overall.
This labour crisis has been like a mirror held up to the immigration system, reflecting its many flaws. Thanks to the shortsighted "points" system to immigration sales offices that falsely "recruit" immigrant professionals (see Publisher's Note on page 3), the Canadian immigration system has lost sight of what Canada needs, how Canada works, and how to make immigration policies sophisticated and flexible enough to reflect these things.
ere's an example. Last spring, when that airplane full of Portuguese deportees flew back to Portugal, it made big headlines, partly because many of the people were hard workers who were filling needs in the labour-crunched construction industry in Ontario. A smaller follow-up headline told the story of one of these deportees who was later allowed to return to Canada on a temporary worker permit to go back to his construction job. Hardly efficiency at work here.
In B.C., the provincial government is trying to do its part to fill its labour gap, partly by subsidizing the new Skills Connect for Immigrants programs that help skilled immigrants enter positions equivalent to their qualifications in such hot industries as construction, transportation, energy and tourism.
Six service providers have been chosen to administer the program, including ASPECT, Back in Motion, Camosun College, Douglas College, Multicultural Helping House Society and Surrey Delta Immigrant Services Society (SDISS).
"If immigrants move to B.C. to work in a field where there is a shortage, then we need to help them get their training and credentials recognized [through these programs]," says Minister of Economic Development Colin Hansen.
Cameron Brine, program manager of the Skills Connect program called Arrive B.C., which is offered by Back in Motion/MOSAIC, focuses on the construction and transportation sectors.
"The program helps skilled immigrants get any retraining and assessment they require to get into a position equivalent to their skills," he says, adding that it focuses on more highly skilled immigrants. "The jobs are waiting," he says - jobs such as project managers to site managers.
Eleanor Guerrero-Campbell, executive director of Multicultural Helping House Society, is also hosting one of the Skills Connect programs for construction, which they have named the Bamboo Network for Construction. "Most of our clientele are engineers," she says.
She explains that the program follows the participants (who pay a portion of the costs of the program) through three key steps. Number 1 is career assessment, which includes credential and language evaluations. Number 2 is skills enhancement services. "For example, if a participant wants to go into CAD construction and wants to top up his training, we can help arrange that," she says. Number 3 is a workplace practicum, which allows them to get a little Canadian experience.
"Employers are quite excited. Very eager. Some of them want to participate like tomorrow. The market is so hot, so it's a good time for skilled immigrants to go for a career in construction."
Still, these Skills Connect programs are just one part of the solution for B.C., since they focus on the higher educated professionals like engineers and can only deal with a small proportion of the province's underemployed immigrants at a time.
Matthew Stevenson, a workshop facilitator for the Skills Connect program through the Multicultural Helping House, says the B.C. Construction Association is also developing a program to help immigrants. "It will help them get sustainable, meaningful employment with room to grow," he says.
"Although it's not the end focus of our Arrive B.C. program, the largest gap is labourers," adds Back in Motion's Brine. For immigrants interested in the construction industry who don't qualify for the Skills Connect program, he recommends a placement agency for the construction sector in New Westminster called Proactive Personnel (www.proactivepersonnel.ca).
The provinces seem to be focusing on provincial nominee programs and programs like Skills Connect to help their current immigrants and attract new ones, but much more work still needs to be done at the federal level to make the immigration system reflect current and future Canadian realities.
While we're still waiting to hear about the Conservative government's promised national clearinghouse for foreign credentials (to help all of those professionals who had the necessary points to get here but have faced barrier after integration barrier after arriving), it's clear that what Canada needs now is an overhauled system that integrates immigrants who can work in trades and labourer positions, and want to help build our country. When will these applicants start getting the points they deserve?