New program to attract a skilled foreign workforce

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.

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.

“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 at the construction site of The Bow, a 58-storey downtown skyscraper that’s close to completion.

“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 as a result of both new projects and the gap left by retiring baby boomers.

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, like the Provincial Nominee Program and the Canadian Experience Class. Kenney said those have been helpful, but insufficient.

“There are still huge gaps. We’re talking about tens if not hundreds of thousands of shortages in the skilled trades predicted in the next decade alone.”

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.

“Businesses know better than the government what sorts of skills are needed and should have the flexibility to head hunt workers overseas or even just south of the border where unemployment is high and the skillsets are a good fit for Canada.

“Frankly, we’ve been selecting a lot of people through our skilled worker program who end up unemployed and underemployed while businesses have skill shortages,” Kenney said.

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

Alberta government officials consulted with Kenney in the days leading up to the federal budget, said Premier Alison Redford.

“And what we saw was some real flexibility in terms of trying to create labour strategies that could compliment immigration policy, that would allow us to get more workers here faster,” she told reporters while campaigning in Calgary ahead of the April 23 provincial election.

“So I’m very pleased to see some success with respect to that.”