CALGARY - Ottawa has announced a new immigration program that it says will make it easier for Canadian business to hire the workers most urgently needed — skilled tradespeople.
The new stream for workers in fields such as construction and manufacturing should be set up later this year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Tuesday in Calgary, the financial heart of Canada's oil and gas industry and a city all too familiar with skilled labour shortages.
"In Canada we've been welcoming historic high numbers of immigrants, partly to help us fuel our prosperity in the future and fill growing labour shortages," Kenney said at the construction site of The Bow, a 58-storey downtown skyscraper that's close to completion.
"But, to be honest, our immigration programs haven't been effective in addressing a lot of those shortages. Our immigration programs have become rigid and slow and passive."
The labour market in the West is especially tight, thanks in large part to a bevy of multibillion-dollar oilsands projects on the go in northern Alberta. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers forecasts the energy industry will spend some $55 billion this year on major projects, said spokesman Travis Davies.
The Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada said in a recent report the oilsands sector will need 21,000 additional workers by 2021 — more than double the number it employed in 2011 — to compensate for both the gap left by retiring baby boomers and fill the needs of new projects. And that doesn't account for turnover in an ultra-competitive labour market.
It also doesn't include the ripple effects of that growth on the wider economy — like the need for new homes and offices to be constructed, or demand for more service industry staffers.
There are some avenues for newcomers to become permanent residents, like the Provincial Nominee Program and the Canadian Experience Class. Kenney said those have been helpful, but insufficient.
"There are still huge gaps. We're talking about tens if not hundreds of thousands of shortages in the skilled trades predicted in the next decade alone."
Skilled tradespeople make up a small percentage of immigrants coming to Canada under the current program, even though the resource and construction sectors are clamouring for welders, pipefitters, electricians and other skilled trades.
Criteria required to enter Canada under the existing program put tradespeople at a disadvantage because the rules are geared toward professionals, said Kenney.
"Let's be honest — we don't need more people coming to Canada with advanced degrees that end up driving taxi cabs and end up working in convenience stores. That's a waste of human capital," he said.
Businesses know better than the government what sorts of skills are needed and should have the flexibility to head- hunt workers overseas or even just south of the border where unemployment is high and the skillsets are a good fit for Canada, he added.
"Frankly, we've been selecting a lot of people through our skilled worker program who end up unemployed and underemployed while businesses have skill shortages," Kenney said.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the new program is an improvement from the tendency to use temporary foreign workers to back-stop labour shortages.
But he said he remains "deeply troubled" that there are some 1.5 million unemployed workers within Canada that could fill the gap if they had the right training.
"There's a gap that needs to be bridged between the demand for workers in areas like the oilsands and the supply of workers in places like Ontario and Quebec," said McGowan.
"Instead of abandoning those unemployed workers, we feel very strongly that our government should look first at new and creative ways to train unemployed Canadians to fill the job vacancies as opposed to reverting to what I would describe as a short-sighted Band-Aid solution like the one they've announced today."
Cheryl Knight, CEO of the Petroleum HR Council, agrees more training and better outreach to students is needed, but she said that's not enough to fill the gap.
"The bottom line message is that we also need foreign workers, skilled foreign workers."
The measures to bring more skilled tradespeople into Canada is welcome, but there is also a shortage of skilled workers that fit into neither the trades nor professional categories.
For instance, workers with experience in drilling complicated horizontal natural gas or oil wells won't necessarily have educational credentials. But they'll have plenty of valuable experience they learned on the job, Knight said.
Davies, the CAPP spokesman, said skilled tradespeople are badly needed in the oilpatch, but there are shortages in the engineering and financial industries, too.
"When you look out there, the labour challenge is very real and it's very imminent. And it's not just oil and gas. It's all industries in this country, and especially in the West," Davies said.
The oil and gas industry believes in hiring Canadians first, and supports training and apprenticeship programs, he added.
"We also think we're going to have to look beyond our own borders and take some steps to increase economic immigrants to our country," he said.
The changes are part of a broader set of immigration reforms laid out in last month's federal budget.
Alberta government officials consulted with Kenney in the days leading up to the federal budget, said Premier Alison Redford.
"And what we saw was some real flexibility in terms of trying to create labour strategies that could compliment immigration policy, that would allow us to get more workers here faster," she told reporters while campaigning in Calgary ahead of the April 23 provincial election.
"So I'm very pleased to see some success with respect to that."
— With files from Bill Graveland