Study: U.S. Workers Head North to Bridge Skills Gap

By Catherine Skrzypinski Nov 18, 2013

A recent study advises businesses in oil-rich Alberta to look for skilled tradespeople below the 49th parallel in the U.S., despite opposition from some labor experts over allowing guest workers into Canada.

According to an October 2013 study by the Conference Board of Canada, many Alberta employers are considering U.S. workers to fill Canadian vacancies in high-growth sectors like construction, energy, engineering and mining for the following reasons:

  • Americans have comparable skills training and work experience.
  • Americans and Canadians both speak English.
  • The U.S. and Canada have a common workplace culture.
  • Americans can enter Canada without a visa for six months and can either live close or commute to a worksite across the border.

“With 50,000 unfilled vacancies and more than double that number expected within a decade, the labor and skills shortage has a direct impact on Alberta’s ability to develop its resource and energy sector,” said Laura Dawson, Ph.D., president of Dawson Strategic in Ottawa and author of Skills In Motion: U.S. Workers May Hold the Key to Canada’s Skills Shortage, in a news statement. “That is not just a regional problem; it affects our national economic prospects, as well.”

Launched in 2012, the Alberta Occupation-Specific Pilot has brought nearly 1,000 highly skilled American carpenters, heavy-duty equipment mechanics, industrial mechanics, ironworkers, millwrights, pipe fitters and welders into the province.

Canada needs workers who want to go home after a couple of years, Dawson explained in a radio interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in October 2013. “Americans are perfect because they want the temporary contracts,” she said. “A rotational system—four weeks on, one week off—is a more attractive package to U.S. workers who have been hit hard by unemployment and the financial crisis.”

The province, home to Fort McMurray, the hub of Canada’s oil industry, has also introduced a recruitment campaign, Helmets to Hardhats, aimed at enticing Canadian and American military veterans to work in its oil sands patches.

Janet Bomza, founder and managing lawyer of the Bomza Law Group, a global immigration law firmin Toronto, agrees with Dawson about the country’s lack of homegrown skilled labor. She attributes this to the Canadian education system’s failing to encourage students to study skilled trades.

Even though Statistics Canada reported a 6.9 percent national unemployment rate for October 2013, Bomza predicted that in the coming years it will be a challenge for companies seeking highly qualified applicants for technical positions in Canada. The Conference Board of Canada reported in November 2013 that the country is facing a shortage of 1 million workers by 2020.

“Companies don’t have a choice—they need to look outside of Canada,” Bomza said in an interview with SHRM Online. “The reality is, there’s not enough skilled people to meet demands in Canada. If a company has the right candidate in mind, then they should hire them, regardless of work status.”

Canada for Canadians

The American laborer solution that Dawson proposes is resurrecting a debate among experts about Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program, which enables employers to temporarily hire foreign workers to fill immediate needs when qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available.

Critics say companies in Alberta should focus on filling the open positions with eligible Canadians.

“The system relating to temporary foreign workers is fundamentally broken,” wrote Naveen P. Mehta, lawyer and director of human rights, equity and diversity at the Toronto-based United Food and Commercial Workers union, in an e-mail to SHRM Online. “It is a system that operates more akin to the Wild West than structured, cogent and comprehensive government policy. The temporary foreign worker program in Canada has been the backbone of a movement toward a low-wage economy with no end in sight.”

Another report published in October 2013, by Montreal-based think tank the Institute for Research on Public Policy, calls on the federal government to put a limit on the number of temporary foreign workers admitted to Canada annually.

“The growth in the number of temporary foreign workers numbers is a cause for concern,” wrote Christopher Worswick, a professor in the department of economics at Carleton University in Ottawa and author of Economic Implications of Recent Changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. “Its timing, which coincides with a period of weakness in the Canadian economy, is especially troubling.”

Statistics Canada estimates that around 350,000 people working in the country in 2013 have one-year temporary foreign worker visas.

Worswick suggested that unemployed Canadians in Atlantic Canada either relocate across the country or fly into Fort McMurray for several extended shifts. According to the Financial Post, because of family ties, tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders commute long distance to Alberta, rather than move there permanently.

Another solution Worswick proposed is for companies based in Alberta to pay a $275 fee to the federal government to bring in immigrant laborers.

“The fee could be used as a way to determine how reliant the firms are on temporary foreign workers,” Worswick explained in the report. “It would also … create an incentive for firms to either train Canadian workers or invest in new technologies that raise workers’ productivity to the level where firms can reasonably operate while paying the higher wage.”

HR as a Gatekeeper

Human resource professionals in Canada and the U.S. can play a role in developing a strong skilled-worker pool on both sides of the border.

“Employers should advertise their jobs with a higher living wage, as this would attract more high-skilled workers,” Worswick advised.

Kevin Zemp, founding attorney at Calgary-based Global Immigration Solutions and Legal Services, told SHRM Online that U.S. and Canadian operations could work together to make the temporary foreign worker program advantageous for both countries.

“I hope this could become a revolving door—Canadians could also go to work in America eventually,” Dawson concluded. “Labor mobility has been a sore subject up until now, but with the increasing integration of the Canadian/U.S. labor market, it will increase even further in the next 10 years.”

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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