09/05/2014 01:23 EDT | Updated 11/05/2014 05:59 EST

Canada Should Look to the U.S. for Skilled Workers

Canada is faced with finding 300,000 or so skilled workers to meet economic demand and retirements over the next 10 years. I can think of no better source country for skilled workers than the United States while we are busy training our young people and refocusing our education system

In this Nov. 14, 2012 photo, Miguel Begin, the chief of operations for the Canada Border Services Agency's Stanstead sector, stands at the Canadian port of entry in Stanstead, Quebec. Canadian immigration officials on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 said a Romanian smuggling ring has been bringing Gypsies into the U.S. through Mexico in order for them to eventually gain asylum in Canada. Over the past year, cars loaded with ethnic Roma asylum seekers have run the border between Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

This past Thursday, September 4, Ottawa hosted an Executive Steering Committee Meeting for the Beyond the Border initiative. Three years ago, Prime Minister Harper joined President Obama in the White House Rose Garden to announce this bilateral program that was to revolutionize the way both governments manage our shared border.

This committee met with key stakeholders from both countries to gather feedback. In addition, the presence of a Mexican Foreign Affairs official at the meetings telegraphed the importance of these issues at the upcoming North American Leader's Summit -- a meeting that is due to be held in Canada.

The discussion from the stakeholders was as varied as the industries they represent. But to a one, they were candid and clear with the American and Canadian officials who sat on the other side of the room. A lot has been done, and as a Nexus card holder, I can tell you, certain government programs can revolutionize (!) your life. That said, there is still a lot that can be done to make the cross border movement of people more efficient and smarter. And a lot that can be done to make our North American economy stronger.

Across North America, the demand for specialized workers in the construction industry puts pressure on local labour markets and project planning. Multi-billion dollar investments are being made in infrastructure, transportation, and energy systems in North America. Construction accounts for approximately 4.5 per cent of US GDP and close to 11 per cent in Canada.

The Canadian Building Trades sees the next iteration of Beyond the Border as a real opportunity to strengthen the human capital components of our two economies. If you surveyed major companies or associations in Canada and the United States, the largest single growing business risk is labour supply not regulatory issues or access to capital investment.

Currently, if you are a skilled trades person or a construction company looking for people, there's not a lot in BTB for you. If a major project is being built in either the United States or Canada, no flexibility exists to facilitate the movement of the skilled trades to local labour markets where shortages exist. In Northern Alberta large energy producers in partnership with employers and unions have been using the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) Program for labour shortages -- there are building trades workers from Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois -- to the tune of 2,000 or so people have come and gone over the last three and half years. Frankly, the current system is a mess and BTB could clean it up.

Canada is faced with finding 300,000 or so skilled workers to meet economic demand and retirements over the next 10 years. I can think of no better source country for skilled workers than the United States while we are busy training our young people and refocusing our education system. And all the while putting good paycheques in the hands of unemployed American plumbers, pipefitters and carpenters.

An employer driven system that provided front of the line access for pre -cleared, admissible and certified skilled trade workers would ease the backlog both on processing for government and lost productivity for companies. Plus, it enables someone to get a job they wouldn't otherwise have -- one of the most important economic measures we have. If the job is going unfilled and projects don't move ahead because of labour uncertainty what is the opportunity cost for Canada and the U.S.? We know people from Michigan or Florida or Washington State aren't going to disappear into the Canadian wilderness and never go home. All work in construction is temporary and transitory. Canada and the United States needs a better way to deal with the movement of the skilled people the construction economy demands.

There is no solution in NAFTA, there is no solution in Canada's TFW program, there is no solution with an H2B VISA -- a dedicated hive out, something separate from existing silos is required to increase trade in skills for the economy and increase productivity on both sides of the border. A pilot perhaps from BTB using all that RFID, Nexus technology and border infrastructure already in place.

Imagine not only the transport trucks moving faster at major crossings with preclearance but regular people going to work to earn a pay cheque. Imagine in three years if BTB could report dozens of large construction projects went ahead for the betterment of both economies. All we need is an ingenious solution-targeted at people who are in high demand in both countries by the same companies and clients. Nothing happens in our cities, power plants, neighborhoods or oil refineries without the supply of people with the right skills.


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