EDMONTON - Jason Kenney says he has heard the alarm bells ringing, loud and clear.
He knows Alberta’s oilsands-powered economy is on the cusp of another serious labour crunch, with a projected shortage of 114,000 workers over the next decade.
A coalition of 19 Alberta business groups hammered that message home yet again this week, calling for more action from the feds to avert what they see as a looming crisis and a serious threat to the province’s prosperity.
As Canada’s citizenship and immigration minister, Kenney says he’s working hard to address the gap, in part by tweaking the immigration points system so more skilled workers can get into the country.
“The key thing is to reform our programs so we get more bang for the buck, so we’re attracting those newcomers who aren’t going to be stuck in survival jobs, but are rather ... filling those critical labour shortages,” he says.
“That’s what is going to be driving the reforms we make this year, and I think the provincial governments and the employers will be delighted with these reforms.”
That remains to be seen, of course, since no specific proposals are on the table just yet.
In the meantime, Kenney is hearing much the same message from Alberta Premier Alison Redford, who was in Chicago this week, talking up the oilsands’ ties to the region’s big refinery complex.
“Of the five major refineries around Chicago, 70 per cent of what they’re refining is Alberta crude, and there’s anywhere from 70 to 100 local companies manufacturing or providing services directly related to the oilsands. The trade both ways is in the billions of dollars,” she says.
“In every discussion we’ve had we’ve talked about (Alberta’s labour needs), and that … we are probably looking to fill about 100,000 jobs,” she adds. “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.”
To facilitate that, Redford says she is working with Chicago’s mayor, the governor of Illinois and the Canadian consulate to put together a pilot project to pre-certify U.S. workers for jobs in Alberta.
“What’s great about what Jason Kenney wants to do is, he’s really talking about reforming the immigration system so that in the long term, we’re able to actually identify skilled workers who can emigrate to Canada and do the work,” says Redford.
“But while that is a laudable goal, there are some immediate needs. We have to ensure that we’re not exacerbating another inflationary cycle in Alberta. So that’s where we would like to take the discussion, and we’ve begun to make that case.”
In other words, Redford is clearly worried that the sizzling pace of new energy developments in Alberta will soon outstrip the supply of workers, despite Kenney’s efforts, setting the stage for a repeat of the frenzied conditions that prevailed before the last boom ended.
Alberta can jump up and down all it wants, but that won’t change the facts of life in Ottawa. The feds move at glacial speed at the best of times, and often face conflicting regional pressures.
What’s seen as crucial to the economic well-being of one region may be anathema to another, and that can undermine the case for bold policy action.
While Alberta and Saskatchewan are both desperate to secure more skilled workers for their booming resource industries, Central Canada doesn’t share the same preoccupations.
Jobless rates currently top eight per cent in both Ontario and Quebec — where most new immigrants settle. What’s more, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has fingered Alberta’s oilsands, the engine behind Canada’s soaring petrodollar, as a prime cause of his province’s economic woes.
All of which puts Kenney between a rock and a hard place. Which may explain why he remains cautious about opening the floodgates to more foreign workers, despite the glaringly obvious needs in Western Canada.
In particular, he is reluctant to give the provinces the power to bring in more workers under the provincial nominee program.
“Since we came to office we have gone from about 4,000 to about 45,000 provincial nominees across the country, and Alberta has had the lion’s share of that growth,” he says, “And Alberta wants to double it again, Saskatchewan wants to double it, and every province that has a PN (provincial nominee) program wants to double or triple it,” he adds.
“But Canadians are telling us that immigration levels are already high enough, or too high, consistently in every poll that I’ve seen in the past two or three years. That’s right across the country, including the West. So basically, I think it would be irresponsible for any government to massively expand immigration that goes beyond the capacity of Canadians to integrate newcomers.”
That aside, Kenney argues the immigration system alone can never fix all of Canada’s — or Alberta’s — labour issues. Much more needs to be done to increase employment among First Nations communities, and in regions of the country where jobless rates remain high.
“Too many young Canadians don’t seem interested in the skilled trades or doing basic labour anymore. We need to do a much better job of getting young Canadians and aboriginals in the workforce, and people in those parts of the country with high unemployment. That’s got to be part of the solution, too. It’s not just about immigration. It’s about domestic labour market policies.”
I asked Kenney if that points to the need for reform to Canada’s employment insurance system, which offers richer benefits to jobless workers in regions where there is chronically high unemployment, thus discouraging them from moving to places like Alberta. But he had to run, so I never got an answer.
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