City hall blitzes U.K. for workers: Calgary looks overseas to fill 250 jobs

The City of Calgary is joining in the rush in Alberta for temporary foreign workers and will be searching overseas for city planners, heavy-duty mechanics and up to 200 bus drivers.

In a first for the city, Mayor Dave Bronconnier and an entourage of city managers and employees will travel to London and Leeds, England, in June to make a pitch for more than 250 temporary foreign workers at a job fair being organized by a private British company, said Cindy Munn, who leads corporate recruitment at the city.

The city is looking at other countries as well -- although it hasn't decided which ones -- and the plan could soon be expanded to include foreign emergency medical workers, she said.

The mayor said Wednesday it's not a new concept to bring city workers in from other countries.

The city had to attract foreign skilled workers, such as planners, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as well.

"I'm not going to put my head in the sand and suggest that we don't have a human resources challenge because we do," Bronconnier said. "If we get the right people, which is what we're looking for, yes, we want to bring them here."

The June trip to the United Kingdom will cost the city about $185,000, Munn said.

The temporary foreign worker program, which allows outsiders to work in Canada for a limited period if employers demonstrate they can't find suitable Canadian or permanent residents to fill the job, has exploded in popularity recently in Alberta, alongside the province's deepening labour shortage.

Service Canada reports that applications for more than 100,000 foreign workers poured into federal offices in Alberta over the past 12 months, mostly for private companies, but also for post-secondary institutions and hospitals.

But the federal program, which has come to include more unskilled workers in recent years, hasn't expanded without controversy.

Labour leaders say bringing in workers from other countries allows employers to keep wages artificially low, and foreigners who are in Canada only at the behest of an employer are more likely to be exploited or abused -- unlike traditional immigrants who are free to get work wherever they chose.

"We are in the process of creating an underclass of disposable workers," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, who said he is disappointed by the city's move towards the temporary foreign worker program.

In the city's case, Munn said, said the workers will be brought to Calgary under the temporary foreign workers program and then move toward citizenship through the provincial nominee program. The city will give the workers help with housing and provide other settlement services, and they will be able to bring their families.

She said the city will continue to try to recruit labour from within Canada. But if all goes well with this first bid, more temporary foreign workers will be brought in.

"We have done a lot of forecasting. And so what we see is that there's going to be significant retirements within the organization over the next five years," Munn said. "We are at the very beginning of what could become an issue."

But already, Calgary Transit is short about 200 drivers and 14 heavy-duty mechanics, said spokesman Ron Collins.

Transit operators receive five weeks of paid training. The starting hourly wage for driving a shuttle bus is $17.68, and for a regular bus it's $20.44, going up to $25.55 an hour in three years -- plus benefits.

"We feel it's a competitive wage," Collins said. "The difficulty is it's a red-hot economy here in Alberta."

But Mike Mahar, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said he doesn't think the city will have much success in getting people from the U.K. to come to Calgary because the wages are too low and living costs are too high.

"There's a lot of other jobs out there that will pay better that are less stringent. It's a tough job and a lot of people find out shortly that it's not what they thought it was," Mahar said.

But Alan Davies, a licensed immigration consultant in Calgary, said when the economy is good, private sector jobs tend to be more attractive than government work. It's understandable the city wants to bring in temporary foreign workers, too, he said.

"Who is going to come here if we don't have services?" Davies said.

The City of Edmonton, too, was offered the chance to go to the British job fair -- called Opportunities Canada Expo.

However, Helen Ngan-Pare, the head of recruitment for the City of Edmonton, said they will look to hire recent immigrants and refugees instead of temporary foreign workers.

"There's enough of a local labour pool," Ngan-Pare said.

Calgary Herald, Thurs Mar 20 2008
Byline: Kelly Cryderman

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