Faced with a massive skills shortage and a surge of job openings, Western Canadian employers are looking to an old source for new workers: hard-up Ireland.
This week, two delegations of employers – one from Saskatchewan led by Premier Brad Wall, the other headed by British Columbia and Alberta construction industry representatives – are making a push to entice Irish citizens to leave their economically devastated country and come to Canada, as the ancestors of more than one in eight Canadians did generations earlier.
"We have a construction boom; they have a bust," said Abigail Fulton, vice-president of the British Columbia Construction Association, whose 11-member delegation is meeting with Irish government, industry and union representatives in Dublin this week. The meetings, she said, are intended "to lay groundwork and develop an inventory of people who are looking for work" – then match the names to companies looking to fill more than 100,000 construction jobs expected to open up in B.C. and Alberta in the next five years.
Like the Alberta-B.C. delegation, the Saskatchewan group, which includes 27 employers, has a big presence at the Working Abroad job fair in Dublin this weekend, giving Canadian exhibitors close to 40 per cent of the booths. The Saskatchewan government has set up a website that greets potential Irish emigrants with the message "Welcome to your future" and hundreds of job postings. The province is even sending immigration officials to help applicants speed the process of moving to Saskatchewan, while Mr. Wall will greet job seekers on Saturday.
"They're pushing it really hard," said Chris Willis, a Canadian immigration consultant based in Hudson Heights, Que., who has attended the twice-annual job fair for the past six years. "This time it's very much a Canadian-focused show."
Among the exhibitors is Kevin Dahl, co-owner of Nipawin, Sask.-based K&R Contracting, which builds giant metal storage bins attached to grain elevators across the Prairie provinces and has had trouble holding on to employees. "This past year we needed 15 to 20 and couldn't get any more than 12," he said. "We'd hire a bunch of guys and they'd just disappear. There's so much work in Saskatchewan that if you have a bad day, you can start 10 other jobs tomorrow." He's hoping to hire up to 10 metal workers this weekend.
With its steady economy, common language, similar training and work standards – not to mention shared history – Canada is one of a handful a popular destinations for Irish workers.
Moreover, the Irish economy holds few opportunities. Four years after the bursting of its property bubble – and its reputation as one of the strongest economies in the world – Ireland's unemployment rate is stuck at 14.2 per cent, and the number of construction jobs is down more than 60 per cent from its peak in 2007. Construction activity is expected to sag to €6.5-billion ($8.7-billion) this year, one-sixth its level in 2007. "There's not a huge amount of light at the end of the tunnel at the moment," said Jimmy Healy, spokesman for Ireland's Construction Industry Federation.
As a result, people are leaving the country of 4.6 million people in droves. In the year ending April, 2011, 40,200 Irish nationals emigrated, up 45 per cent from the same period a year earlier and triple the level three years earlier, according to the Irish Central Statistics Office.
Meanwhile, Citizenship and Immigration Canada reports 3,729 temporary foreign workers entered the country from Ireland in 2010 – up 25.7 per cent from the year before – either through the country's one-year "working holiday" program for those under age 35 or after obtaining four-year permits under the temporary foreign workers program through their Canadian employers.
Ms. Fulton said her group had met with a warm reception so far. "They see this as a partnership more than us coming over and snagging all their workers. They want their workers to find jobs and return when their economy improves."