Aussies court skilled workers as Alberta labour crunch looms

Calgary, AlbertaImage via WikipediaBY BRYCE FORBES, CALGARY HERALD

With a massive worker shortage looming over Alberta, an Australian job fair in Calgary offered a glimpse of what could be an international battle for labour.
Nine-hundred people crowded into a downtown hotel ballroom Saturday to check out the fair where oil, gas and mining companies tried to woo skilled, senior-level Alberta workers.
The fair, which continues in the city today and next weekend in Edmonton, comes on the heels of a warning from the province’s employment minister that Alberta could face a labour shortage of 77,000 people in the next 10 years.
Rupert Merrick, the organizer of the Opportunities Australia Expo, said Australia is in the midst of its own labour crunch because of booms in the mining and oil and gas sectors.
Calgary was the first Canadian city targeted for the fair because of its skills base.
“Canada, and especially Alberta, is considered world class in terms of the skills that they have and Australian employers are suffering from a skill shortage right now,” said Merrick, who added Saturday’s turnout was twice what they expected.
Richard Truscott, Alberta director of Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the Australian endeavour is a sign a bidding war for workers is set to heat up in the next 10 to 20 years.
“This is clear evidence that we are in major competition for skilled workers,” said Truscott. “It’s another reminder that we need to get our act together and really carve out some effective strategies to attract and retain workers to Canada from elsewhere.”
Alberta Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said his warning of a 77,000-worker shortage was conservative, based on the province’s low birth rate, rebounding economy and baby boomer retirements.
“(The year) 2011 is the first year in which official baby boomers are turning 65, so we’re looking at a large exodus of workers — not only in numbers, but in experience,” Lukaszuk said Saturday.
He said he is concerned about Australia and other countries coming to Canada and poaching skilled workers.
But, for him, the bigger concern is the whole immigration process and the delays prospective workers face before receiving visas to enter Canada.
“Our national immigration policies are not as nimble as they are in other countries, which would definitely include Australia,” said Lukaszuk.
Merrick said Australia boasts a “very refined immigration system.”
“It’s all about meeting the demands of the employers,” he said. “The government has some very clever mechanisms in place, which allow employers to go out and get the skills that they need.”
Anastasia Reyes, a job applicant who has worked in the oil and gas business in Calgary for five years, said she would fly out to Australia on Monday if offered a job.
“I got to work through the boom here, which opened so many doors of opportunities, so I would love to see what doors would be opened to me somewhere else overseas,” said the 23-year-old after setting up interviews for early this week.
Working toward her civil engineering degree, she said one Australian company said it would help pay for her remaining education as well as guarantee a job afterwards, an offer she hasn’t seen in Calgary.
There are many perks to working in Australia, said Brooke Wilson, recruitment manager with oil refiner Caltex Australia, including comparable wages, a lower cost of living, relocation packages and even surfing. Two of their oil refineries are close to surfing hot spots.
“People in our refinery in Sydney actually go down for a surf in the afternoon,” she said.

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