An increasingly "desperate" labour shortage is the main obstacle keeping companies from becoming more competitive.
An aging work force and growing demand for specialized skills means that hundreds of thousands of jobs are going begging despite stubbornly high unemployment, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce concludes in a report being released Wednesday.
The expected shortfall over the next decade or so includes 163,000 construction jobs, 130,000 oil workers, 60,000 nurses, 37,000 truckers, 22,000 hotel workers and 10,000 skilled steel tradespeople.
"Canada is developing a desperate labour shortage and resolving it is key to the continued success of Canadian businesses and the economy," according to the report, Top 10 Barriers to Competitiveness.
The chamber said businesses must work closely with the federal and provincial governments to tap "underutilized" potential workers, including older workers, youth, natives, the disabled and new immigrants.
"We have to have a real sense of urgency. We're trying to sound an alarm," Perrin Beatty, chief executive of the chamber, said in an interview.
Most Canadians are "blissfully unaware" that their future prosperity is being put at risk by emerging economic challenges, from inside and outside the country, Mr. Beatty argued.
He pointed out that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's visit to China this week is a powerful reminder that faster-moving trade rivals are rapidly moving up the economic "value chain." He said Canada must "up its game" to keep pace.
"A lot of things we take for granted are at risk," Mr. Beatty said.
The labour shortage is the most severe of 10 barriers facing businesses, which include discriminatory employment-insurance benefits across the country, a complex tax system that is laden with exemptions and too dependent on income and corporate taxes, lingering barriers to trade within Canada, and vague and overly restrictive foreign-investment rules.
A key challenge is to help workers laid off from shrinking industries, such as manufacturing, find work in fast-growing sectors.
That's the reason the biotech industry is launching an online skills-transfer tool this week designed to help factory workers identify expertise that could be useful to new employers. Many traditional manufacturing skills are desperately needed in biotech, including those of equipment installers and operators and monitoring and control technicians, according to BioTalent Canada, an Ottawa-based non-profit group that developed the Web resource.
"Unemployed workers simply do not know this," said Rob Henderson, executive director of BioTalent Canada.
Immigrants are another vast pool of potential workers. They make up a fifth of the labour force and all of its recent growth. But language barriers, mismatches of skills and problems converting foreign credentials is forcing too many of them into low-paying unskilled work or unemployment, concludes a report issued this week by Toronto-Dominion Bank.
Raising the employment rate for immigrants to the same level as native-born Canadians would mean 370,000 more people working, according to TD. And if immigrants were paid the same as non-immigrants, the boost to the economy would equal $30-billion, or 2 per cent of the gross domestic product.
"Canada would gain a major competitive advantage if this country were recognized around the world as one where all migrants are successful in being able to practise their own trade and raise their standard of living," the TD said.
Solving the dilemma is "integral to the long-term prosperity of Canada's economy," the bank said. Better targeting of immigrants with the skills Canada needs, along with improved language training and better recognition of foreign credentials would help to close the gap, according to TD.