Fast-tracking the entry of foreign workers to toil in Canada’s mines, oil fields and construction sites is certainly expedient.
The work is there. So bring them in and get it done, for the sake of the economy.
But a rented foreign work force is hardly an enduring solution to a skills shortage that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called “the biggest challenge our country faces.” At best, it’s a stop-gap.
Labour shortages are now a permanent feature of Canada’s labour landscape.
The country is staring at a decade or more of critical labour scarcities as the massive baby boom generation retires and the economy grows. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will go begging for electricians, welders, pipe fitters, heavy equipment mechanics and many other trades.
The federal government’s recent announcement that it intends to bring in an extra 3,000 skilled tradespeople next year may be welcome news for employers.
It’s one thing to bring in foreigners to do jobs Canadians can’t or won’t do. Farmers have been doing it for years to harvest crops. But the program betrays the national interest if it is being used as a cover to import workers whose only asset is a willingness to work for a lot less than Canadians.
A continuing Federal Court case in British Columbia highlights some of the troubling consequences of Ottawa’s temporary foreign worker program. Labour unions allege in court filings that HD Mining International, a Chinese-owned coal mine in Tumbler Ridge, B.C., won federal and provincial approval to bring in as many as 200 Chinese workers over the next few years, even though it is paying them substantially less than the going rate, with no benefits.
Under the program, an employer must first demonstrate the jobs can’t be filled in Canada. The unions say the company cleared that hurdle by demanding workers speak Mandarin – a claim the company denies.
Canada’s labour market is highly fragmented, with shortages in some industries and provinces, and surpluses elsewhere. The jobless rate remains high at 7.4 per cent, worse than it was before the recession. And Canadians who find themselves out of work are unemployed longer – five weeks more than prerecession levels and well above the historic average.
There’s also a mismatch between the skills demanded in sectors that are hiring and the skills of workers in shrinking parts of the economy.
One solution is to work harder at recruiting skilled immigrants – rather than temporary workers – who will settle in Canada and contribute to the economy and society.
But the core of the problem lies with Corporate Canada. Many of the same companies who complain of labour shortages invest too little training their own workers.
Apprenticeship – the time-honoured tradition of experienced journeymen training the next generation – remains a foreign concept for the vast majority of employers. In spite of generous government incentives, more than 80 per cent of employers who use skilled workers don’t offer any, according to the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum. Spokeswoman Marie Bilodeau said the reasons are numerous, and complex. Among other things, companies – particularly smaller ones – say they lack the human, financial and logistical resources to train their own people.
Even larger employers who take training seriously rarely do enough.
Consider Irving Shipbuilding, which has a $25-billion deal to build 21 combat ships for the federal government. The company recently announced that it will spend $250,000 a year to train and recruit local students. It’s also offering apprenticeships. That’s all great, but likely not enough to attract the 1,500 workers it will need over the next decade in the face of stiff competition for those skills from Alberta’s oil fields.
Canadians also bear some responsibility. Too many students spurn trades training in favour of college degrees that often lead to low-paying service industry jobs. Others may simply be oblivious to the opportunities available.
Training workers is a long-term investment. It requires patience. Research by the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, which lost its federal financing this year, shows that companies get back $1.47 for every $1 they spend on apprentices. Over the life of a four-year apprenticeship, the gain can reach as high as $250,000 for a single heavy equipment mechanic as the apprentice becomes more productive and generates revenue.
Importing temporary foreign workers, on the other hand, is more like day-trading: Quick profits over long-term wealth.