Labour Shortages in Western Canada Create Policy Challenges

In mid-September I had the opportunity to attend and speak at a conference in Calgary on recruiting and employing foreign workers in Western Canada. The conference was attended by a number of immigration professionals like myself as well as by recruitment and executive search firms. But most of those in attendance were from industry: HR professionals and the like who are realizing that their companies are facing a growing need to recruit workers from abroad.

These needs are especially acute in northern Alberta where the tar sands in the Fort McMurray area have created an economic boom and a desperate need for both skilled and unskilled labour. Stories abound of Tim Horton’s and similar fast food chains offering $20 an hour as a starting wage. On top of this, Alberta in general is enjoying unprecedented economic growth that has created labour shortages across a number of different economic sectors.

BC is in a similar situation although it has generally not reached the crisis point in most areas. But the coming Winter Olympic Games in 2010 combined with generally positive economic conditions have created shortages of workers across the construction sector, to use one familiar example.

In the best of circumstances, the need for various industries to look abroad to fill the many vacancies they are experiencing would present a challenge for companies that may have never faced this prospect before. But, from a government policy and operational standpoint, we are far from experiencing the best of possible circumstances. In fact, it could be argued that our Foreign Worker Program is ill designed as well as under-resourced and that this situation will not improve until significant reforms are undertaken.

The first problem stems from the fact that the federal government’s responsibility for selecting and admitting foreign workers is spread across several different federal ministries and agencies. Foreign worker policy is set by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). But most employers must first deal with Service Canada (formerly Human Resources and Skills Development Canada) to get permission to bring in a foreign worker. And if they get pass that hurdle, their foreign worker may be applying at a port of entry to an officer of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) or to an overseas visa office, depending on where the individual is coming from.

This “alphabet soup” of federal government departments is enough to turn many employers and would-be foreign workers off the system altogether. But if they are strong-willed – or desperate – enough to persist, they are faced with the fact that the system does not respond in timeframes that most employers would view as reasonable. In BC and Alberta, Service Canada processes “Labour Market Opinions” – essentially, the federal permission that an employer needs to bring in a foreign worker — in approximately 3-5 months at present. And that doesn’t include the 2-3 months it may take to have the foreign worker’s application processed overseas by a visa office.

Most employers will tell you that they need their workers here “yesterday”, not half a year from now. So what is being done by government to address this problem that promises to have dire economic consequences if not properly addressed?

Well, CIC recently announced the opening of two offices, one in Calgary and one in Vancouver, to screen requests from employers to bring in foreign workers. The problem is these offices are only able to respond to applications that deal with bringing in workers who, because of particular provisions in the regulations (like those taking into account free-trade agreements, for example), are “Labour Market Opinion-exempt” and therefore don’t need to go through Service Canada to obtain prior permission. This constitutes only a small portion of all those foreign workers that are admitted and it specifically doesn’t include the majority of those that are most desperately required by many industries. As the system is presently structured, CIC simply is unable to do more than this to streamline the process because it is not within their ministerial responsibility to field employers’ requests for foreign workers. By statute, they have appointed Service Canada to handle this task.

Service Canada, meanwhile, has a mandate that extends well beyond the foreign worker program. It administers the multi-billion dollar Employment Insurance program as well as many other programs related to the Canadian labour market. Its core function is to protect and service the domestic labour market which, it could be argued, leads to its an ambivalent attitude toward granting permission to Canadian employers to bring in foreign workers. I would contend that as long as the issuance of Labour Market Opinions is the responsibility of this agency, the program will languish as a lower priority and be under-resourced when it is most needed by industry.

There are no easy answers here. One option would be for the provinces to take a greater role in foreign worker selection as they are beginning to do with economic immigration through the Provincial Nominee Programs (PNPs). Certainly it could be argued that individual provinces have a better handle on the labour shortages that exist within their borders than the relatively distance federal government in Ottawa has. And it is reasonable to expect that they would be able to respond to these shortages in a more timely fashion. However, at present, the provinces are generally a long way off from having the policy infrastructure, institutional knowledge and dedicated resources to deal with this important function.

Once upon a time in Canada, there was a ministry called, in blatantly sexist fashion, Manpower and Immigration. It eventually was renamed Employment and Immigration Canada and it combined the functions of managing and administering the foreign worker program with overall responsibility for immigration selection and admission. Perhaps it is time to return to the past and include these important federal government functions in the same department. Certainly, from the perspective of employers crying out for foreign labour, it could only be an improvement on the current system.