Feds hope new program fills skilled trades void from abroad

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.

"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 Alberta is already tight, with a bevy of multibillion-dollar oilsands projects on the go. A recent report suggested it's only going to get tighter.

The Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada has said the oilsands sector may need to double its workforce by 2021 to compensate for both the gap left by retiring baby boomers and fill the needs of new projects.

And that 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, such as the Provincial Nominee Program and the Canadian Experience Class. Kenney said those have been helpful, but insufficient.

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 workers.

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.

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 backstop 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.

The changes are part of a broader set of immigration reforms laid out in last month's federal budget.

Hamilton Spectator, Wed Apr 11 2012

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