An Alberta-based pilot program that allows skilled tradespeople to move from employer to employer while on a temporary Canadian work permit is expanding — a change that could bring hundreds or even thousands of new workers to the province, says Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.
The program also makes it easier for certain foreign workers to get a job in Alberta’s oilsands or on construction sites, especially from countries with no Canadian visa restrictions, such as the U.S.
Kenney said it will help address what he calls a near-crisis in a number of fields where there aren’t enough Canadian tradespeople available.
“This collapses what used to be a six-month, complicated, bureaucratic process into a one-step process where they can get a work permit in 30 minutes at the airport,” Kenney said in an interview on Monday.
“This will make it massively faster for employers to proactively recruit skilled tradespeople — for example, from the United States.”
For the past year, foreign steamfitters and pipefitters in the pilot project have been able to move freely between Alberta employers instead of being tied to one boss for the duration of the work permit — the usual rule in Canada’s temporary foreign worker program.
Now, other in-demand tradespeople, including welders, heavy duty equipment mechanics, ironworkers, millwrights and industrial mechanics, carpenters and estimators will also be able to join the program.
The pilot program also allows these types of workers to be issued a work permit without a special authorization from Ottawa, called a Labour Market Opinion.
The Alberta government estimates the province could be short almost 1,500 welders, 1,376 carpenters, 775 heavy duty mechanics and 77 ironworkers in less than a decade.
“The good news coming out of this is Alberta is still the economic engine of Canada,” Alberta Enterprise and Advanced Education Minister Stephen Kahn said Monday.
“We need these workers.”
A number of Alberta groups have made recent trips south to recruit U.S. workers, who don’t need to learn a new language and often have similar training and qualifications.
But Kenney said the U.S. has been unwilling to expand a North American Free Trade Agreement visa program. The move to allow tradespeople into Alberta more easily through the TFW program, Kenney said, is “a bit of a work around.”
“There are thousands of unfilled positions. And major construction projects are being held back because of this,” the minister said, adding he estimates the program could bring thousands of workers in “once it picks up steam.”
The news was welcomed in many quarters as a benefit to both the temporary workers, who will have more job options, and employers without enough employees.
However, a group representing small and medium-sized businesses said the expanded mobility of the workers means staff at small firms might be subject to “poaching” by larger companies.
“The small employer goes through all the cost and hassle of hiring a temporary worker, only to have them lured away by a big company with the promise of higher wages,” said Richard Truscott of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Martyn Piper, executive secretary Treasurer of the Alberta Regional Council of Carpenters and Allied Workers, acknowledged there’s a shortage of carpenters and other trades. However, he’s worried the new additions to the TFW program will lessen the impetus to train young workers, women and First Nations people, so they can become full participants in the labour market.
Piper also said the government needs to make sure only those foreign workers with the proper training and qualifications are allowed into the province.
“I would urge caution,” Piper said.
This is just one in a long list of continual adjustments being made to Canada’s TFW program. In April, Ottawa announced that foreign workers can be paid wages up to 15 per cent below the average pay rate, so long as it can be clearly demonstrated the same wages are being paid to Canadian workers.
At the same time, the government announced companies with an unblemished two-year history of hiring temporary workers from abroad will be allowed to apply for fast-tracked hiring permission.
Some unions have said the new provisions make it more difficult for Canadians to find meaningful work.