Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Immigration stream would be welcome


View from the Board | Bill Stewart
Recent news reports that Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and the federal government are contemplating creating a "skilled worker" stream for permanent immigration are welcome news for the construction industry.
By most accounts, Canada's construction industry will again be plagued with manpower shortages in the near future.
The single largest factor leading to this shortage is the aging workforce. By 2015, it is estimated that 35 per cent of Canada’s population will be aged 55 years or older.
Bill Stewart
View from the Board
Bill Stewart
An estimated 3.8 million workers are expected to retire between 2005 and 2015.
In construction, 210,000 of the current 1.2 million workers are expected to retire over the next eight years.
While the impending demographic tsunami has been known for years, solutions are complex and clouded by politics.
Many argue that these shortages can be addressed solely with Canadians.
A good deal of progress is already being made through increased apprenticeships and training along with outreach initiatives to attract youth and people from traditionally under-represented segments of the labour market.
For example, according to Statistics Canada, the number of apprentices registered in carpentry, electrical, plumbing and pipefitting trades was 83,000 in 1991. By 2009, that number increased to almost 155,000, despite the recession.
More can and will be done to develop domestic labour supplies. It just makes sense.
Despite the best efforts of governments, business associations, contractors and labour suppliers, forecasts indicate that there will be a significant shortfall in domestic resources to meet demands.
The Construction Owners Association of Alberta (COAA) for example, estimates that almost 160,000 offshore constructions workers will be needed within the next eight years to satisfy all the projected workforce needs.
Unfortunately for the construction industry, Canada’s current immigration system does a poor job of targeting immigration for high-demand construction occupations.
This is particularly true of the Skilled Worker Program (SWP), where about 280,000 people are admitted annually.
According to the ministry, 46 per cent of admissions under the program have a master’s degree or PhD, while less than 3.0 per cent of admissions were apprentices or held a formal trade certificate.
Kenney was right on when he noted that, “People who are skilled tradespeople have an almost impossible job coming to Canada under our current system.” No kidding!
The current system is heavily weighted on educational achievement.
For construction, this has resulted in less than 700 people with trades or construction experience being admitted annually under the current permanent immigration regime.
With numbers like this, is it any wonder why contractors have had to resort to the controversial Temporary Foreign Worker program to help supplement their workforce?
In light of this, how is it possible to reconcile the fact that only 55 steamfitter-pipe fitters – a trade vital to industrial construction and maintenance on energy related projects – were permitted into Canada under the SWP from 2005 to 2010?
Additionally, why were contractors authorized to bring up to 4,300 steamfitter-pipefitters into Canada from 2007 to 2009 under the TFW program?
In Alberta, the most recent Major Projects Inventory lists $201 billion in construction investments across various construction sectors over the next few years.
Alberta is not alone. Saskatchewan as well as Newfoundland and Labrador, which have long been vital sources of construction workers for Alberta, are currently experiencing record levels of construction activity.
Shortages of skilled workers have occurred and will continue to occur despite record levels of apprenticeship training in Canada. Without immigration reforms, such as the creation of a permanent stream for immigrants with trades skills, as Minister Kenney is suggesting, it is abundantly clear that the current immigration system will be unable to help deal with the impending skilled worker shortages in construction.
Bill Stewart is the vice-president of the Merit Contractors Association in Alberta. Bill is also a member of the Journal of Commerce Editorial Advisory Board.