Labour crunch threatens Alberta’s growth, groups warn

Coalition calls for changes that would bring more workers into the province ahead of an anticipated shortage

EDMONTON - An alliance of 19 Alberta business organizations called on the federal and provincial governments to cut red tape around labour immigration on Thursday.

"The simple fact remains that we do not have enough people in Alberta to fill the jobs today and the thousands of jobs that are anticipated," said Tim Shipton, president of the Alberta Enterprise Group. "If there is going to be any limit to the growth in Alberta, it is the lack of people to fill jobs."

The AEG, along with other associations such as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Alberta Federation of Independent Business, collectively call themselves the Alberta Coalition Against Labour Shortages. ACALS unveiled four technical requests for government aimed at bringing more workers into the province.

Government statistics project a shortage of 114,000 workers by 2021 in Alberta. Premier Alison Redford, speaking during a recent tour of Chicago, said American workers could fill some of those positions.

"We are probably looking to fill about 100,000 jobs," Redford said. "When we say that their eyes just pop out because in some places down here they're at 20-per-cent unemployment. They really want those people to be able to come up."

Ken Kobly, CEO of the Alberta Chambers of Commerce, another member of the coalition, identified changing demographics as a driving force behind the shortage.

"We're into the middle of a systemic shortage, not just in Alberta but across the country, because of folks like me who are going to be retiring in a little while," he said, pointing to shortages of skilled workers in Newfoundland.

"Certainly, it's aggravated by the peaks and valleys that we have in an economy, but it's a systemic requirement. Baby boomers are retiring."

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, pinned the province's workforce problems to the pace of development in the Athabasca oilsands.

"The real problem is that our provincial government has simply approved too many projects at one time," McGowan said. "No one should be surprised that some employers are finding it hard to get the workers they need."

Industry will spend more than $20 billion on developing new oilsands projects in 2012.

McGowan called on the province to approve fewer projects and reform the temporary-foreign-workers program.

"I think most Albertans would prefer 25 or 30 years of steady employment in oilsands-related projects over six or seven years of frantic development, supplemented by thousands of temporary foreign workers and followed by a bust," he said. "We're afraid that these proposals would take thousands of those jobs away from Albertans and also have the effect of driving down wages.

"While this may be a great blueprint in the eyes of business groups, this, frankly, is the last thing that ordinary working people need."

ACALS members say they only look abroad for workers after exhausting the local market.

"If there are individuals that are willing and able to work, they should put up their hands, because there's certainly plenty of jobs in this province," said Richard Truscott, Alberta director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, an ACALS member.

"Nobody in their right mind would go through all the cost and hassle of something like the temporary-foreign-worker program if there were people here in Canada that were applying for these jobs. But they're not."

T.J. Keil of the Alberta branch of the Canadian Home Builders' Association said interprovincial migration won't meet Alberta's needs.

"If (Canadians) do want to make Alberta their home and work here, we want that to happen," he said. "But once that pool has dried up, you have to continue looking. It's a globally competitive market now."

In a news release, the provincial labour federation called the ACALS proposals "an attack on workers."

"It's bad news for temporary foreign workers under the existing program, and it's bad news for Canadian workers," said McGowan, who feels issues involving foreign workers in the province continue since the boom of the mid-2000s.

"We've seen this movie before."

Edmonton Journal, Thurs Mar 1 2012
Byline: Lewis Kelly

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