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Canada's Employment Minister Jason Kenney pauses during a news conference in Ottawa June 20, 2014. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Canada's Employment Minister Jason Kenney pauses during a news conference in Ottawa June 20, 2014. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Foreign worker troubles a symptom of a larger problem Add to ...

Ottawa is right to make it much tougher for Canadian employers to import temporary foreign workers.

The program grew too quickly and strayed badly from its original intent when it was opened up to lower skilled jobs, such as burger flippers and hotel cleaners.

But don’t mistake these stricter rules for a magic fix to all of Canada’s workplace challenges. Minister of Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney acknowledged the bigger stakes involved last week when he summoned experts to a “skills summit” in Toronto shortly after unveiling his reforms.

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The troubled temporary foreign worker program is a symptom of a much larger problem – the inability of the labour market to adjust as jobs migrate between industries, skills and regions with the natural ebb and flow of the economy.

Canada doesn’t have a shortage of workers. It suffers from a misalignment of people and geography.

Mr. Kenney has rightly pointed out that if companies in booming Alberta and Saskatchewan can’t find Canadians to fill jobs, they should raise wages, invest more in training and bolster recruiting efforts in have-not provinces.

But there are also a host of structural impediments that continue to keep people from available jobs. It’s about labour mobility, unemployment insurance, education, immigration policy and underemployed pockets of Canadian society, including aboriginals, youth and recent immigrants.

Even though Canada’s pending free trade agreement with Europe boasts a ground-breaking labour mobility chapter, reciprocal recognition of job credentials between most provinces remains elusive. Every year, provinces reject the qualifications of thousands of workers who try to move within Canada, for reasons that have little to do with protecting the health and safety of Canadians.

Canada must work harder to create a “single market for labour” and harmonize certification of apprentices, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development urged in a recent report. The report pointed out that it took Canadian public accountants a decade to work through the cumbersome dispute settlement system of the Agreement on Internal Trade just to win the right to work freely across Canada.

Industry Minister James Moore has promised to strengthen the internal trade deal. But it’s an effort that comes a decade or more late, and getting the provinces to buy in won’t be easy.

The employment insurance regime is another obvious labour mobility killer. Employment insurance creates a disincentive to work in high unemployment areas of the country because workers there work fewer hours to qualify for benefits and earn more when they’re laid off. Just as some employers have built their businesses around imported foreign labour, companies also structure their operations around EI-subsidized seasonal workers, creating a powerful disincentive for people to move to find jobs.

The education system is not doing a particularly good job of steering high school and university graduates to where the best new jobs are. Many graduates are not equipped with the basics employers want, including “soft” communication and problem-solving skills. And apprenticeship programs suffer chronically low graduation rates, apparently because many workers can’t afford the loss of income while they’re in class.

Part of the fault lies with government. Canada spends well below the OECD per capita average on publicly funded training, and less than a fifth of top spenders Finland and Denmark.

Last week, Mr. Kenney said he wants to help students make better career and training choices by linking federal tax data and provincial records on postsecondary education. That’s a good start.

Governments could also do a lot more to expand the labour supply. Subsidies and tax breaks for daycare would encourage more mothers to stay in the workforce. Increased investment in First Nations education would pay off countless times over by unlocking a vast and expanding labour pool. Canada should also work harder to fast-track permanent immigrants who have with highly sought-after skills and experience, and then move these people to where the jobs are.

It’s not that governments aren’t aware of labour problems, or working on solutions.

But it’s taking far too long.

Faced with this policy vacuum, it’s no wonder employers are tempted by misguided quick-fixes, such as temporary foreign workers.

An earlier online version of this story incorrectly stated that Jason Kenney was the federal immigration minister. In fact, he is the minister of employment and social development.

Follow on Twitter: @barriemckenna

 

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