BY PETER CAULFIEL - With expected labour shortages over the next decade, Alberta Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk is calling for a permanent foreign workers program to supplement the temporary foreign workers program and local skills training.
“The temporary foreign workers program is necessary, but it also creates a revolving door of transitory foreign workers,” he said.
Lukaszuk suggested that there’s a better solution.
“Temporary foreign workers are very expensive,” he said.
“They send remittances back home and they don’t become Canadian citizens. We should be looking towards a permanent foreign worker program, where we attract the skill-sets that cannot be filled by Canadians, and then allow these individuals to come, to settle, to spend their income to buy houses and cars and become permanent residents of Canada.”
Lukaszuk was commenting on the 2013-2023 edition of The Alberta Occupational Demand and Supply Outlook, a forecast that is released by the government every two years.
The good news/bad news report is predicting a shortfall of 96,000 workers by 2023.
That’s down from two years ago when Alberta predicted that an extra 114,000 workers would be needed by 2021.
“The efforts of post-secondary institutions to align their programs to the needs of the economy are beginning to pay off,” he said.
According to the outlook, about 407,000 workers are expected to join Alberta’s labour market over the next decade, at an average annual rate of 1.6 per cent.
The province’s overall population is expected to grow by 1.7 per cent over the same time period.
The report covers a long list of occupations.
A number of construction-related occupations are forecast to face labour shortfalls by 2023.
They include <0x000a>civil, mechanical, electrical and chemical engineers (1,123); heavy equipment operators (2,011); trades helpers and labourers (3,020); carpenters and cabinet makers (1,381); masonry and plastering trades (653); and other construction trades (1,005).
Bob Otway, chairman of the Calgary Construction Association, said Lukaszuk’s idea for a permanent foreign workers program is on the right track.
“The temporary foreign workers program is OK for big camp jobs, such as the oil sands, but it doesn’t work well for major centres, such as Calgary,” he said.
Otway said that labour supply and demand in the Calgary construction market is “balanced to slightly on the tight side” at the moment, but shortages are expected in the future because of the large amount of commercial, residential and retail construction work upcoming.
Ken Gibson, executive director of the Alberta Construction Association (ACA), said the ACA supports permanent and temporary immigration programs for skilled trades and related technical and managerial occupations, as well as education and training programs for Alberta residents.
“Alberta’s construction industry spends millions of dollars a year on scholarships, tuition rebates and training to develop our own workforce,” he said.
“In fact, Alberta produces 20 per cent of Canada’s apprentices with only 11 percent of the country’s population.”
Gibson said permanent immigration is required because industry and government forecasts suggest Alberta faces chronic skill shortages due to high labour demand and the retirement of the boomer generation.
“But, temporary foreign workers also fill a critical need because of the cyclical nature of Alberta’s resource-based construction,” he said.
“Even if Canada had the population to produce enough construction workers to cover peak demand, we would still have significant construction unemployment off-peak.”
Gibson also said the government’s projections for the province’s construction industry may be too optimistic and may underestimate the long-term demand for skilled tradespeople.
“During the high-growth years of 2002-2007, the Alberta forecasts of the BuildForce/Construction Owners Association workforce forecast committee in Alberta generally underestimated long-term demand for skilled trades,” Gibson said.
“And, it appears we may be entering another high-growth period.”
Gibson says the nature of Alberta resource mega-projects makes any forecast challenging.
“The projects require very large workforces,” he said. “As projects make use of available skilled trades, the amount of work originally forecast gets rescheduled for a future period, which means the previous forecast is now too low.”
Furthermore, as more and more plants become operational, they require significant permanent workforces for maintenance and smaller projects that are needed to optimize production from the existing plants.