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The U.S.-Canada Border Needs to Open For the Skilled Workforce

03/18/2015 08:11 EDT | Updated 05/18/2015 05:59 EDT
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Canadian flag hanging on Ambassador bridge.

Still nothing for people going to work! Canada and the United States signed an agreement recently which in reality won't witness results for many years and certainly will be difficult to measure (if the political systems in both countries can manage to ratify the agreement). The announcement was something about pre-clearance ability, border guards and unfunded wish list border infrastructure?

Recently, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives issued an excellent report entitled Made in North America: A new agenda to sharpen our competitive edge. This report outlined more than two dozen excellent recommendations for the bilateral relationship. The report outlines a wide range of policy options to improve our shared North American economy.

From cargo co-operation to labour and skills mobility, it is a road map for policy makers from Canada's largest economic players. It is like this report somehow was lost, not transmitted or simply ignored by governments on both sides of the border.

Both countries are in election mode. Canada goes to the polls this fall and Americans next November for a new president. Sounds like an ideal time to actually implement positive programs for people -- programs to help people drive the North American economy. There are no commercial goods moving back and forth without people who are properly educated, trained and positioned to do that work.

There is no natural gas moving from Alberta to Chicago without the skilled workforce to extract, process and keep product moving. There are no new train cars manufactured without welders or bridges built without ironworkers or heavy crane operators. The skills these people possess are the same in Michigan as they are in Ontario -- why don't our two countries work together in a proactive way to build a North American workforce? Why wouldn't our governments work together to establish a system for the unemployed electrician from Detroit to easily go to work in Toronto if the labour market will allow? Why wouldn't the steamfitter from Sarnia, ON be able to cross the border and travel to work in Illinois without delays and economic risk? This kind of thing is a barrier for economic investment on both sides of the border. If North America doesn't get the human capital right, somewhere else will.

Workers and industry face enormous regulatory burden when trying to move people back and forth between Canada and the United States for economic purposes. A workforce that is mobile, highly-trained and competitive with the rest of the world is a necessity in the new world economy. Why wouldn't our two governments facilitate the movement of skilled workers to work on major projects in both countries and help manufacturing (or technology) giants get the talent they need where they need it? If Michigan has seats available for carpentry training, why wouldn't they train to Ontario standards (or vice versa) if either jurisdiction needed workers? Leadership (and immigration policy consideration) is required from both federal governments.

The Council on Foreign Relations recently released a report called "North America, Time for a New Focus". It states: "The Task Force finds that North America's demographics could offer the region a global advantage. But regional economic integration has not been matched by integrated policies for education and workforce development. Quality education and skills development matched to economic need will be important for both national and regional economic growth and competitiveness."

Canada's Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said at the event "Our Government's top priority remains creating jobs and opportunities for Canadians...(this announcement) will create jobs and growth in Canada by improving the flow of legitimate goods and people between our two countries." It is murky at best how pre-clearance in Ontario or New York State actually creates jobs. While this could be a step in the right direction, the reality is that work to create a truly mobile workforce has yet to be done. What we need is an announcement that speaks to a program that could actually make it easier for a selected set of highly skilled, in-demand occupations to work in either country. Companies would benefit from lower administration costs and contribute to economic prosperity in both countries. While the Beyond the Border Working Group has begun discussions on what this might look like AND the technology to support such a program is already in use, little has yet to gain traction.

While the recent announcement is a welcome reminder of the work being done to better manage our shared border, real benefits to the skilled workers (and voters) of North America have yet to be felt. Our governments need constant reminders that this matters, or, like so many other good ideas, it will be left in the cold.

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