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Alistair Cox, chief executive officer of Hays Global, a recruitment firm. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Alistair Cox, chief executive officer of Hays Global, a recruitment firm. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

labour market

Canada’s skills gap widening, survey shows Add to ...

The shortage of skilled employees in Canada is deepening, and government policies that tightened the rules governing foreign workers have made the situation worse.

That’s the message of a new study from global recruiting firm Hays PLC, which surveyed the skills gap in 30 developed countries around the world.

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Canada ranks ninth among those countries for the severity of its skills shortage, and its score deteriorated in the past year.

Still, skills shortages are worse in Japan, the United States, Germany, Sweden, and several other countries, the report said. More than half the countries surveyed have some kind of talent mismatch.

The report said skills shortages are not directly linked to the state of the economy in any individual country, but are more closely aligned to government policy, the efficiency of educational institutions in turning out graduates with the right skills, and how effectively employers train their workers.

The situation in Canada and other developed countries will likely get worse as the global economy recovers, said Hays chief executive Alistair Cox, who was visiting Canada this week from the multinational’s headquarters in Britain.

“Sadly … there is a lot of friction in the system, which will make [the jobs mismatch] worse as the economy improves,” Mr. Cox said. “Jobs are being created, but we simply don’t have enough skills in the right place at the right time.”

Canada “is starting to show some worrying trends that there is a gap between the skills available versus what industries are looking for,” he said.

Many of the jobs that are hard to fill in Canada are related to the booming construction industry, Mr. Cox noted. Others are in professions where there are global shortages – such as resources industry workers, engineers, and mobile technology programmers. “Companies are really struggling to find the high end niche skills that they need for the jobs that are available today.”

One problem in filling the skills gap is that educational institutions take so long to redirect their resources to the jobs that are opening up, while immigration rules are being “tuned to mass and unskilled migration issues, as opposed to highly skilled migration,” Mr. Cox said.

In Canada, the jobs and immigration issue came to a head earlier this year when the federal government tightened the rules to make it more difficult for companies to bring in temporary foreign workers. The move was made after a B.C. company tried to bring in 200 Chinese workers for a mine project, and Royal Bank of Canada employees complained that they were being asked to train foreign workers who were to take their jobs.

Mr. Cox said the countries that are most successful in filling empty spots for professional employees have flexible immigration systems that target particular skills. Immigration needs to differentiate between highly skilled workers, and “lower- and middle-level skills that should be in great abundance in the domestic economy,” he said.

Successful countries also tend to work with business to develop those targets, he added. “[Immigration policy] has to be designed and developed by government in conjunction with what business wants. That link-age [needs to be] an absolutely iron bond.”

Mr. Cox cited Australia and Singapore as countries that have done a good job in the past of encouraging immigration targeted to specific professional job sectors. Australia used a flexible points system effectively, while Singapore has made it easy for foreigners to immigrate and has sold itself as an attractive destination, he said. But he also noted that both countries have recently tightened immigration rules.

Despite its recent move to make the temporary foreign worker program more restrictive, the federal government said in this week’s Throne Speech that it will “introduce a new model to select immigrants based on the skills Canadian employers need.”

While a lack of job mobility is often cited as a reason for the skills gap in various regions of Canada, Mr. Cox said his company’s research shows a remarkably high proportion of Canadian professionals – as high as 80 per cent– say they are willing to relocate to take a new job. “We see a greater degree of mobility in this country than we see in many other countries around the world.”

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