Canadian construction groups are welcoming changes to the immigration system to make it easier for businesses to hire urgently needed skilled trades workers.
A new stream for skilled workers in fields such as construction and manufacturing should be set up later this year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said earlier this week.
"This is a landmark change for skilled trades professionals who want to apply to come to Canada on a permanent basis," Robert Blakeley, director of Canadian affairs for the Canadian Building Trades Union, said in a statement.
John Telford, Canadian director of United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, said the changes to the immigration rules will help "in the long-term replenishing an aging work force; it is part of the solution for the labour demand issue."
Mr. Kenney made the announcement on Tuesday in Calgary, the financial heart of Canada's oil and gas industry and a city all too familiar with skilled labour shortages.
"In Canada we've been welcoming historic high numbers of immigrants, partly to help us fuel our prosperity in the future and fill growing labour shortages," he said.
"But, to be honest, our immigration programs haven't been effective in addressing a lot of those shortages. Our immigration programs have become rigid and slow and passive."
The labour market in the West is especially tight, thanks in large part to a bevy of multibillion-dollar oil sands projects on the go in northern Alberta. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers forecasts the energy industry will spend some $55-billion this year on major projects, said spokesman Travis Davies.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the new program will be an improvement from the tendency to use temporary foreign workers to backstop labour shortages. But he said he remains "deeply troubled" that there are some 1.5 million unemployed workers within Canada that could fill the jobs if they had the right training.
"There's a gap that needs to be bridged between the demand for workers in areas like the oil sands and the supply of workers in places like Ontario and Quebec," Mr. McGowan said.
The Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada said in a recent report the oil sands sector will need 21,000 additional workers by 2021 — more than double the number it employed in 2011 — to compensate for both the gap left by retiring baby boomers and fill the needs of new projects.
There are some avenues for newcomers to become permanent residents, such as the Provincial Nominee Program and the Canadian Experience Class. Mr. Kenney said those have been helpful, but insufficient. "There are still huge gaps. We're talking about tens if not hundreds of thousands of shortages in the skilled trades predicted in the next decade alone."
Skilled tradespeople make up a small percentage of immigrants coming to Canada under the current program, even though the resource and construction sectors are clamouring for welders, pipefitters, electricians and other skilled trades.
Criteria required to enter Canada under the existing program put tradespeople at a disadvantage because the rules are geared toward professionals, Mr. Kenney said. The changes are part of a broader set of immigration reforms laid out in last month's federal budget.
The Canadian Press