Diane Francis on Canadian Politics

Saturday, February 11, 2006

How about getting Canadians working???

Diane Francis column Tuesday Feb. 7:

NEW YORK CITY -- Australia is desperately looking for tradesmen and has undertaken its largest immigration drive in 40 years across Europe. Like Canada, Australia is a resource-rich country in the middle of a commodity price boom without enough skilled workers to realize its potential.

The Australians are offering four-year visas to anyone under 45 years of age with six years’ experience in a trade that’s on Australia’s “skills shortage list”. They promise entry within three working days,

Canada, on the other hand, faces an even greater shortage, particularly in its booming oil sands region
And yet, Ottawa’s immigration department remains snail-like in its processing of workers with needed skills. Even more puzzling, unemployment among construction workers in Quebec and the Maritime Provinces is between 30% and 40%, according to StatsCan figures.

There’s also thousands of illegal construction workers who have filled shortages in booming Ontario from Ukraine and Poland. They would love to get visas so they could move out west or wherever there was work. But Ottawa has yet to admit, or process, these people.

The province with the biggest looming crisis is Alberta and its Premier Ralph Klein has begun to look for solutions.
"There are lots of big projects on the books here in Alberta, and the only thing holding them back is a shortage of skilled labour,” he said,

For instance, Alberta is contemplating new roads to link the oil sands region to remote aboriginal communities in order to tap manpower.

The province has also earmarked millions to train another 5,600 technical workers. The number of licensed apprentices has increased by 50 per cent since 1997. The government is working with school boards to promote the trades as a viable career choice, and moves are being made to try and open doors to temporary foreign skilled workers to help meet the demand, he added.

Meanwhile, the oil patch is not standing still. Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s oil sands play is the country’s most ambitious. The company’s contractor, Horizon Construction Management Ltd., has undertaken an aggressive and innovative recruitment strategy. It has overcome the accommodation and transportation problem by creating a fly-in camp at a nearby resort to house workers. Some are on a two-week-on, one-week-off work stint.

“Horizon invites all qualified trades people and indentured apprentices to express an interest in joining our contractor’s teams,” reads its website. “The Horizon Project offers flights to and from worksite, first class camp facilities and leading edge work force and skills upgrading opportunities.”

The trades sought are: carpenter; scaffolder; skilled laborer; ironworker; plumber; crane operator; pipe fitter/steamfitter; millwright; electrician; welder; instrumentation; insulator; equipment operator; boilermaker and cement finisher.

Debbie Wershler, staffing manager at Duke Energy, said in a recent Canwest interview, that individual companies have been trying to solve many of these problems without much success and now they have a platform to find common solutions in an industry that is fiercely competitive.

"The best way to make a big impact is for all of the industry to pull together," says Wershler. She says if companies wait too long, they will find themselves scrambling to find the workers required for the industry to increase production by the 50 to 100 per cent expected within the next 10 years.

Fortunately, industry organizations are beginning to consult with one another in the country’s petroleum regions – the oil sands; the east coast; the far north and the traditional basins in the three westernmost provinces.

Add to those challenges will be the thousands of workers needed for the construction of pipelines to link the oil sands, far north and Alaska gas to markets.

Large companies can mount campaigns to attract employees, but the issue affects all businesses in western Canada. A recent Canadian Federation of Independent Business survey in Alberta found that 60% of its members cited worker shortages as their biggest challenge.

What’s needed is pretty obvious. More efficiency and targeting in terms of immigration and more encouragement of kids by their teachers and parents to enter trades.

But governments can and should only do so much. The real solution – given Canada’s western boom and eastern stagnation -- is for the market to adjust. Western Canada’s businesses and oil companies will have to dramatically up the ante to attract workers. As they increase wages, along with housing and other benefits, the workers will come.


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