Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sounding alarm on labour shortages

BY GARY LAMPHIER, EDMONTON JOURNAL

More than 15 major Alberta business groups say the feds and the province need to do much more to avoid what they regard as a looming labour crisis.
The newly formed Alberta Coalition for Action on Labour Shortages (ACALS) says a projected deficiency of 114,000 workers over the next decade represents a serious threat to economic growth and future government revenues.
The alliance, which has scheduled a news conference today to air its concerns, wants the federal and provincial governments to reform immigration rules and aggressively ramp up efforts with employers to boost the flow of new workers to the province.
The coalition's members include the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Alberta Chambers of Commerce, Alberta
Forest Products Association, Merit Contractors Association, Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, Canadian Energy Pipeline Association and Alberta Enterprise Group (AEG), among others.
"We want to raise labour shortages to the top of the list of issues facing not just Alberta, but quite frankly Western Canada," says AEG president Tim Shipton, whose group's members employ about 50,000 workers provincewide.
"If there is a (limit) on our future prosperity, it will be labour shortages impacting not just the energy sec-tor but all sectors of the economy, and that's why so many groups are coming together and calling for action now."
Tom Huffaker, CAPP's vice-president, policy and environment echoes that message.
"We all perceive that we have a very substantial (labour) crunch coming, if it hasn't already begun, and there's a strong expectation that it's going to get worse," he says. "Whereas in the past it's been somewhat cyclical, there's a perception this time that it's going to be sustained over a long period of time, and we need to start organizing how to deal with that on a number of levels."
The Petroleum Human Resources Council estimates that 39,000 new workers will be needed by 2020 just to replace those who retire, and as many as 130,000 new energy workers may be needed by the end of the decade.
Other industries are looking at similar shortfalls, with the province projecting the creation of 600,000 new jobs in Alberta over the next 10 years.
At 4.9 per cent, Alberta already boasts the lowest unemployment rate in Canada, and with more than $20 billion of oilsands capital spending this year, the Conference Board of Canada expects the provincial jobless rate to fall to 4.5 per cent by next year. Saskatchewan is facing a labour shortage of its own, with a jobless rate that's nearly as low as Alberta's.
"It's not a crisis for the time being, but it's clearly going to be a chronic long-term issue, so it is a very important, high-profile issue for us," says Huffaker. "Our ability to grow the industry depends on having an ad-equate, high-quality labour supply, and we're really concerned about our ability to meet that."
Although Huffaker, Shipton and others give the Harper government credit for boosting the flow of temporary foreign workers and those recruited under the provincial nominee program, the province it-self wants annual quotas under the latter program doubled to 10,000 from 5,000.
The coalition is also asking the federal government to:
- Change the point system under the Federal Skilled Worker Program (TFWP), so it places greater emphasis on marketplace demand for labour as well as validated employment offers, rather than factors like advanced degrees;
- Expand opportunities for temporary foreign workers to become permanent Canadian residents under the Provincial Immigrant Nominee Program;
Amend the national occupation ? ? codes that are used in assessing workers under both the permanent and temporary immigration streams, so the codes better reflect actual employer needs and a broader range of skill positions;
- Reform the screening processes under the temporary-foreign-worker program so employers can better pre-qualify workers, speeding up the cumbersome application and approval process.
The coalition also wants to see a far more aggressive campaign to recruit skilled workers internationally, something that Australia has done over the past couple of years right in Alberta's backyard.
Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says he understands employers' concerns, but he insists the Harper government is already doing a lot to address them.
"Since we came to office five years ago, the number of newcomers coming to Canada who have settled in Alberta has more than doubled, and we've increased the numbers to Alberta under the provincial nominee program 17-fold, so this is a huge success story," he says.
"One of the key initiatives of our government this year will be significant additional reforms to our economic immigration programs, precisely to address this issue, (including) significant changes to the points grid for the selection of federal skilled workers," he adds.
"But the key thing is this: We'll be making broad reforms to move from a slow-moving, rigid and very passive immigration system to a much faster and more flexible proactive system . . . to complement what the provincial nominee programs are doing."
Kenney says the federal government has also quadrupled its in-vestment in settlement services for newcomers to Alberta. "It's a huge in-crease in federal investment in those services that's not been matched by the province."
glamphier@edmontonjournal.com


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