Over the longer term, Mr. Kearney worries about wage inflation undermining project economics as the company tries to lure workers to the remote border area of Labrador and northern Quebec.
Union leader Lana Payne says companies operating in Newfoundland and Labrador are going to have to improve pay scales and quality-of-life issues like scheduling, while devoting more resources to training.
“Is this a skills shortage or is it just a wage shortage? Or that working conditions need to change here in Newfoundland and Labrador?” asked Ms. Payne, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour.
Will the work last?
She said Newfoundland’s construction workers don’t yet believe there will be a steady stream of work, and are unwilling to make major changes – or give up seniority at current work sites – in order to take short-lived jobs at home.
Her biggest fear is that employers like Vale and Rio Tinto’s Iron Ore of Canada are looking to fast-track foreign people through a temporary worker visa program, which Ottawa has touted as one answer to the skills shortage being experienced across the country.
But employers argue they are sometimes left with little choice but to look abroad for skilled help, and that the province needs to attract immigrants as well as returning Newfoundlanders in order to address its demographic challenges.
Fred Cahill, president of St. John’s-based GJ Cahill Group, a large construction company in Atlantic Canada with operations also in Alberta, said his firm has plenty of work, “but the biggest concern is how you get the work done.”
He said the federal government – which manages the temporary foreign worker program – needs to continue to streamline policy to help alleviate skilled-worker shortages, while the province needs to attract more skilled immigrants.
GJ Cahill was among the companies that participated last month in a provincially-organized immigrant recruiting trip to Ireland, where crippling unemployment has followed the housing boom and bust. In addition to trades people, the province was looking for early-childhood educators, information technology workers and doctors.
Mr. Cahill called it a “prospecting” trip. “There are a lot of skills there out of work that we need,” he said.
Ms. Burke, the skills minister, is sensitive to the foreign-worker issue, having lived in the province as it struggled with chronic unemployment.
“I’m only really comfortable with temporary workers from outside if I’m convinced that the people who live right here in Newfoundland and Labrador have had every opportunity to fill those positions.”
Canada’s booming energy and resource sector is confronting a chronic skills shortage that threatens to become acutely painful as the country’s aging and urban work force is increasingly out of sync with industry’s needs.
Economists say the shortage will get worse with an expected capital-investment boom by resource companies feeding growing demand in Asia, and by the power sector rebuilding an aging electricity infrastructure.
Over the next decade, the Canadian economy is forecast to require 319,000 additional workers to cover retirements and job growth, according to the Construction Council of Canada. But there will only be 163,000 new entrants, given Canada’s current demographics, creating a shortage of 156,000.
The energy industry is particularly hard-pressed, said Eugene Lang, co-founder of Canada 2020, an Ottawa-based think tank. He warned that two major economic forces are on a “collision course” – unprecedented slowing of labour market growth and unparalleled investment in energy projects.
“A comprehensive federal-provincial labour market strategy is needed to ensure energy projects can proceed with minimal labour supply constraints,” Mr. Lang said.