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Look to U.S. for skilled workers, Conference Board suggests

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 15: A union worker carries an American flag across the Brooklyn Bridge during a "March for the Middle Class" on June 15, 2011 in New York City. Thousands turned out to show solidarity with union workers and support collective bargaining rights while briefly shutting down Manhattan's famed Broadway. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

In a new report that rekindles the controversial foreign workers debate, the Conference Board of Canada suggests Canada employers should look to the United States if they can’t get skilled workers at home.

It points in particular to an Alberta campaign to recruit American workers as an example of how to source employees that can easily adapt to the Canadian workforce.

“Many Alberta employers consider U.S. workers to be ideal to fill Canadian vacancies because they have comparable training and experience,” says the report, Skills in Motion: U.S. Workers May Hold the Key to Canada's Skills Shortage. “In addition, they understand the language and work culture, can enter Canada without a visa, and live nearby.”

The report addresses what is a real concern for many employers – finding skilled workers to take specific jobs in sectors such as mining and oil and gas. A skills shortage is hard for many to imagine given Canada’s 7.1 per cent unemployment rate and concerns around rising youth unemployment.

Still, economists point to a skills mismatch in Canada, and its potential drag on economic growth. The Canadian government says it’s trying to address the problem through a new job skills program introduced in the recent federal budget, which is itself controversial given the backlash from many provinces.

The foreign workers debate boiled over earlier this year when the RBC’s decision to replace Canadian staff with people outside the country make headlines. HD Mining International Ltd. also came under scrutiny earlier this year when it hired workers from China for its B.C. mining project, arguing no Canadians were qualified to do the work. The federal government has vowed to re-examine the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program in the aftermath of these cases.

The Conference Board acknowledges the foreign workers debate is sensitive, but also believes it’s somewhat overblown.

“The skills gap is real,” says the report. “These sensational incidents belie the positive experiences of the vast majority of employers who rely on TFW programs.”

Earlier this year, the Conference Board released a report showing 70 per cent of organizations are having difficulty recruiting or retaining particular skills.

Its latest report points to companies in Alberta whose hiring of foreign workers helped to keep them in business.

The top five source countries from which Canadian firms recruit foreign workers are the U.S., Mexico, France, the United Kingdom, and Australia, the report says. Most of them are in skilled and technical occupations.

Alberta launched a campaign last year to recruit American workers. The pilot program is said to be a litmus test for “fast and flexible response to labour market demands.”

So far 1,000 American workers have been hired in a number of trades, such as pipe fitter, heavy equipment mechanic and pressure welder.

Using its Alberta case study, the Conference Board report reiterates the argument that foreign workers are need to keep Canadian company’s growing and the economy on track.

“Employers should, of course, look close to home for skilled labour first, but recognize that domestic sources are rarely enough to meet demand for workers for resource mega-projects,” the report states. “That is not just a regional problem, it affects our national economic prospects as well."

Labour unions acknowledge skill shortages are an issue in some sectors in Canada - it's how they're dealt with that can be problematic.

United Steelworkers economist Erin Weir says one of the main issues with the current TFW program is that workers from overseas are "vulnerable to exploitation" by employers.

He encourages the Canadian government to work with international unions on these programs.

"If skilled workers could come to Canada through international unions, they would benefit from labour representation here and could not be used to undercut Canadian standards," Weir said on Friday. "Of course, the longer-term solution should be to provide training opportunities for more Canadian workers, including permanent immigrants to Canada."

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