As Canada drags itself through a slow-motion recovery, one of the most pressing issues facing executives across the country is an acute shortage of skilled labour.
The most recent C-Suite survey of Canadian corporate executives shows that despite the high level of unemployment, companies just can't get all the people they need to fill the skilled positions that are available.
Two-thirds of executives say they are having difficulty finding qualified employees, and one-third say the labour shortage is so severe it is preventing their company from growing as quickly as it could.
With a federal budget coming this month, the executives say they want Ottawa to temper spending cuts with some new investments in skills training, and to open up immigration laws to allow more foreign workers to fill empty jobs.
The problem extends far beyond the oil patch. Executive from the Maritimes to Ontario's high-tech heartland to Western Canada share similar difficulties in matching employee skills to job openings.
"It is a national problem," said Francis McGuire, chief executive officer of Moncton, N.B.-based Major Drilling Group International Inc. "It exists everywhere."
While many of the tough-to-fill jobs are in technical, engineering or information technology positions, Mr. McGuire said, it goes far beyond that. In his company, which conducts intense outdoor work on drilling rigs, "it is very difficult to attract people," he said. "Salaries are very good … but [people say]they don't want to be out with the black flies and the snow and the cold and sleeping in camp and being away from home for 21 days at a time."
Across the country, at trucking firm Trimac Transportation Ltd. in Calgary, chief financial officer Scott Calver said it is becoming increasingly difficult to find professional truck drivers. "It is a problem and it is getting worse," he said, because many young people are not interested in the long hours required for the job, despite relatively high pay rates.
In Saskatchewan, mining company Golden Band Resources Inc. is having trouble finding geology and mining professionals, CFO Mark Thiel said. The province's mining boom is creating a sellers' market for skills, he noted, and the competition for qualified workers is fierce.
And in Waterloo, Ont., Brian Doody, chief executive officer of electronics firm Teledyne Dalsa Inc., said his company would like to expand into some new markets, "but the reality is we can't get people locally to fill the ranks of our engineering and R&D teams to the level that we need to address those opportunities."
Despite the fact that the Waterloo region is a centre of high-tech education, "the lack of young people pursuing further education in engineering, science and technology, is definitely a strain on our ability to grow," Mr. Doody said.
Executives responding to the C-Suite survey clearly put the government on notice that it must deal with this issue. Eighty-nine per cent said increased spending in skills training and apprenticeships should be a high or modest budget priority, more than the 84 per cent who considered spending cuts a high or modest priority.
To deal with the skills shortage, many companies are bringing in employees from outside the country to fill jobs. Almost 50 per cent of the executives surveyed said they are looking at this option as a way to fill specific positions.
It would help if Ottawa streamlined regulations to make it easier to bring in foreign workers, said Jan Hein Bax, president of Toronto-based recruitment firm Randstad Canada. Right now there are restrictions that make this difficult, he said, adding: "I'd like to see the government helping industries to get talent from abroad." Some executives say the federal government should even help pay for skilled immigrants to obtain Canadian qualifications.
When it comes to budget cuts, the vast majority of C-suite executives aren't looking for Ottawa to slash spending across the board. More than 50 per cent said it would be wise to keep spending at current levels or make cuts of roughly 5 per cent. Thirty per cent called for a 10-per-cent reduction, and about 8 per cent felt Ottawa should cut more than 10 per cent.
Mr. Doody, of Teledyne Dalsa, said he thinks it would be a mistake for Ottawa to make across-the-board spending cuts in the budget. "I'd be happier to see targeted reduction in areas that are not as helpful to our economy and economic growth," he said. It is crucial, for example, that the government maintain its commitment to research and development funding, he said. "I'd hate to see that scaled back."
Mr. McGuire, of Major Drilling, said he recognizes the need for cuts to be made now, but he also feels low-income seniors have to be protected, and there should be significant amounts of money spent to train young people. "We have to absolutely avoid the phenomenon we've seen in Greece and Spain where you have 50-per-cent youth unemployment," he said. "That would be a terrible burden for the country."
Federal politicians should focus specifically on educating youth in information technology and related fields, he said, as that sector is crucial to the country's future and will be a huge source of jobs. "If I was policy maker I would throw the whole bucket at it," said Mr. McGuire, who was once New Brunswick's deputy minister of economic development.
The quarterly C-Suite survey was conducted for Report on Business and Business News Network by Gandalf Group and sponsored by KPMG.
The survey interviewed 151 executives between Feb. 10 and Feb. 27, 2012. Respondents represent ROB 1,000 companies from across Canada in the manufacturing, service and resource sectors. The margin of error is 7.3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Each quarter, a $1,000 charitable contribution is made on behalf of a survey participant. For the December survey, a donation was made to KidSport Calgary on behalf of Laura Cillis, chief financial officer of Calfrac Well Services Ltd.
Want to know more about what Canada's business leaders think? Watch for coverage throughout Monday on BNN, and go online to ReportonBusiness.com for the full report.