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Saskatchewan Jobs Mission To Ireland: Canada's Labour Market Not Keeping Up With Needed Skills

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As worldwide demand for skilled labour heats up, provincial governments are increasingly looking outside Canada’s borders, competing with countries like Australia and Germany for desperately needed tradespeople, engineers and medical professionals. But as the provinces embark on overseas recruitment drives, some of their stiffest competition may, in fact, be each other.

In the coming weeks, officials in Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Immigration expect to finalize plans for a possible recruitment mission to Ireland in March. If the trip goes ahead, Saskatchewan will become the fifth Canadian province in as many months to descend on the recession-battered Emerald Isle, where, after a stunning reversal of the country’s fortunes, hordes of unemployed young people are once again leaving in droves.

The fight for Irish workers is a glimpse, say some, of a growing inter-provincial battle.

“Within the Canadian context, there is going to be increasing competition … between provinces for talent,” says Saskatchewan Minister Rob Norris, whose office is organizing the mission -- and preparing to sell the “Saskatchewan story” to Irish workers who may have already been sold on another Canadian narrative.

In November, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island embarked on a joint recruitment drive to Ireland, conducting job fairs in Cork and Dublin, the same cities that Saskatchewan officials are planning to visit.

“We welcome those conversations, because Saskatchewan is a compelling story,” says Norris. “This is a big land for big people with big ideas.”

Norris has had some practice making the pitch: in 2008, his office embarked on its first overseas recruitment drives, making two separate trips to both the Philippines and Ukraine.

Selling prospective foreign workers on what a particular province has to offer is also something Alberta has become accustomed to doing.

Since 2007, the oil-producing province has attended numerous job fairs in the U.K. and the U.S., and embarked on several minister-led missions -- everywhere from Germany to Australia and Asia -- to fill labour shortages in various sectors. In November, Alberta targeted the oil and gas industries with a virtual job expo, during which 3,500 resumes were uploaded.

Though Sonia Sinha, spokeswoman for Alberta Employment and Immigration, says that other countries are the province’s primary competitors, she concedes that efforts are made to distinguish Alberta from its Canadian counterparts.

“We are obviously promoting Alberta above any other province,” she says. “We say that Alberta has an amazing quality of life. We have the lowest overall taxes, great education, great health care and great opportunity for growth.”

According to Deborah Bayer, spokeswoman for Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, the Atlantic mission to Ireland, which was funded mainly by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), targeted workers to fill positions in IT, agriculture, engineering and trades.

“Ireland is a rich source of skilled potential job seekers who can fill the staffing demands of certain key sectors in Atlantic Canada,” she said in an e-mail, pointing to the historical connections to Ireland and relative proximity as particular advantages.

Though Bayer said it was “too soon to measure the success of the trip,” she described the response as “positive.”

“Numerous resumes were collected, and employers are currently in the process of going through their contacts and resumes to ensure they meet the employers’ needs,” she wrote.

Rosemary Venne, a labour expert at the University of Saskatchewan’s Edwards School of Business, says the inter-provincial contest for foreign workers is a natural extension of the battle that has been mounting at home in recent years, which has seen provinces target economically battered regions to “brain drain” each other’s skilled workers.

“It’s not surprising that they would be in competition for Ireland. There’s probably a huge swell of young people who aren’t able to get jobs, and who are thinking about leaving -- and these would be educated young people that any country would want” she says. “I think that every province might be scrambling for them a bit.”

Over the past two years, reports indicate that about 10,000 Irish have emigrated to Canada.

In Saskatchewan, Norris says the buzz around recruiting Irish workers through the provincial nominee program has been growing over the last 18 months, in part, because of the country’s “highly respected post-secondary education system.”

He says that about a dozen employers have so far expressed interest in participating in the trip, which he estimates would cost between $75,000 and $100,000.

To be sure, both Canadian regions face significant labour challenges.

In Nova Scotia, the issue is aging population, with the number of working age residents expected to decline by 47,000 over the next decade.

Saskatchewan’s skilled labour crunch, meanwhile, is the result of a booming economy on the heels of decades of stagnating population numbers. In 2011, officials say the number of jobs posted on SaskJobs.ca, the government-sponsored jobs portal, increased by 39,000 positions over the previous year, bringing the total number of vacancies to 150,000.

In December, there were a record number of people employed in Saskatchewan -- and it appears a growing number of Irish would like to count themselves among them. According to officials, last year web traffic from Ireland to SaskJobs.ca increased by 60 per cent over 2010.

All of which explains why Norris doesn’t believe the Atlantic trip will detract from the one his office is planning.

“The level of interest in this mission is the one factor that has pleasantly surprised me,” he says, noting the abundance of e-mails his office has received from interested parties in Saskatchewan and Ireland offering contacts and tips.

“I haven’t seen any suggesting that this is anything other than a worthy endeavour,” he says. “What we see anecdotaly and hear about is increasing interest, more than anything.”

But Hugh Mackenzie, researcher for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, questions the wisdom of focusing so many disparate Canadian recruitment efforts on one country.

He says the desperate need for workers “really underlines the huge failure in Canada’s skilled-trade training system” -- and the absence of a coherent strategy to address it.

“This would be a little bit different if it was a surprise that we needed all these skilled people, but it’s not,” he says. “The fact that we have no national labour force development strategy … is a huge problem because it results in a lot of duplication of effort, it results in a lot of competition, it results in a lack of coordination.”

According to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, however, a regional approach to overseas recruitment makes sense.

“The Government of Canada believes that the provinces and territories are best placed to determine what is required to meet their specific labour market needs, including meeting their particular labour force needs as they differ across the country,” the communications department said in an e-mail.

For his part, Norris maintains that overseas recruitment efforts -- which could in the future extend to Greece and the U.S. -- are only one part of Saskatchewan’s strategy to address the growing talent challenge. The approach, he says, includes “record investment” in post-secondary education, and programs targeted specifically at the First Nations population.

“With any post-secondary or skills training endeavour, there’s a time component,” he says. “For employers, they need individuals right now.”

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