The current shortage of skilled tradespeople in Western Canada is so dire that the B.C. Construction Association is returning to Ireland this month to hire 600 people, said the group's vice-president.
In fact, even if one in five students graduating from high school in B.C. during the next three years were to pursue a trade, there still wouldn't be enough workers to fill shortages in the province's construction industry, said Abigail Fulton.
Not everybody agrees with the recruitment drive, especially the province's labour leaders who argue employers can find skilled, unionized Canadian workers to fill immediate, vacant positions.
Yet, a consensus is developing that there will be a shortage of skilled workers in the coming decade, as proponents of the liquefied natural-gas industry, hydro-electric projects and oil and gas pipelines push their proposals forward.
"There's lots of evidence to suggest we're not doing enough to train construction workers in skilled trades in British Columbia, and if even half these projects come through we're going to have a crisis unless we start now to deal with the problem," said Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Federation of Labour.
The provincial government's own statistics indicate there will be more than one-million job openings over the next decade, and more than 153,000 of those will be among trades, transport, equipment operators and related occupations. Retirements will be responsible for two-thirds of the vacancies, and new economic growth will be behind the remaining third, states the British Columbia Labour Market Outlook 2010-2020.
In the B.C. construction industry, about 30,500 jobs were expected to go unfilled by 2012, according to the association's own statistics.
To address some of the problem, the association is organizing and hosting the Western Canada Construction Job Expo Oct. 31 in Belfast and Nov. 2 in Dublin, where it will represent about 30 employers, half of them from B.C., said Fulton.
Wanted will be workers in more than 50 construction trades, from bricklayers to framing carpenters, power-line technicians to welders. Even architects and structural engineers are in demand.
Two employees of the provincial nominee program, which allows the B.C. government to nominate individuals to immigrate to Canada, will attend, said Skills Training Minister Shirley Bond in an email statement.
"Our staff will be providing seminars on working, living and investing in B.C., and will provide important on-the-ground expertise and advice on immigration matters," she said.
Bond said the program is critical in helping B.C. address the impending labour shortage and offers an accelerated pathway to permanent residence for eligible skilled foreign workers, international graduates, and qualified entrepreneurs and their family members who intend to settle in B.C.
The trip won't be the first for the association, which made its first visit in March 2012.
Fulton said the association learned the Irish apprenticeship system was one of the best, and skilled trades people would be able to transition to Canada and earn their Red Seal, an interprovincial standard of excellence in the trades.
She said the association also learned there was an abundance of trades' people.
The Irish economy crashed in 2008 and still hasn't recovered, and last year's job expo drew 20,000 people, she said, adding unemployed tradespeople lined up outside the job fair, down the street and around the corner for as long as two days.
"Listen, these folk are over there, we know their apprenticeship system is excellent, they're looking for work and we need workers," she said.
But the province's labour leaders aren't as excited as Fulton about the expo.
"There are British Columbians and Canadians that probably could do those jobs," said Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the British Columbia and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council.
He said skilled, unionized workers are available, but some companies don't want to hire union workers, so they turn to other sources.
Sinclair also questioned why businesses are turning to the Irish, who, he alleged, are ending up as indentured workers, especially if they are coming to Canada on temporary visas.
"A guy ... who owns a business, a construction business, said to me, 'I like Irish workers because they have to work for me for two years and can't quit.' I mean and I've had that said to me by other employers, too," said Sinclair.
The provincial government and labour leaders, including Sinclair, announced in September they'll develop a joint strategy to fill jobs arising from the LNG sector.
Bond also appointed Jessica McDonald, a former deputy minister to former premier Gordon Campbell, to review the organization that oversees trades training in the province.
McDonald's final report is expected to be submitted by the end of November.
Fulton said she thinks the problem begins in high school.
Most school districts have de-emphasized shop classes and have promoted university during the past few decades, said Fulton, noting the trades have been used as a "last option" for students who can't "make the grade."
"The real challenge I think is convincing youth and their parents that trades is the way to go," she said. "We've got to really put a lot of focus in that area and try to make sure that young people in high school today recognize this opportunity before they get out of high school and decide to go to university."
Daniel O'Sullivan, 27, who came to Canada from Galway about four years ago and now lives and works in Vancouver as a carpenter, agrees, saying he began his apprenticeship at the age of 16 or 17 and was fully qualified and was earning good money by the age of 20, but then the economy collapsed and the banks stopped lending money to developers and construction companies.
When he left, out of his group of 20 friends who worked in the trades, only two had jobs, so some came to Canada and others left for Australia.
"Back home a trade, when I was younger, was a first option, and here it seems it's the last option, for young guys, in my trade. I can only speak for my trade," he said.
He said he likes the Canadians he works with and said they're good at what they do but construction in B.C. is seen as being at the "bottom of the barrel in line of careers," noting there's more emphasis on going to university or college.
Paul Dangerfield, vice-president of education, research and international at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, said the challenges continue in the post-secondary institutions.
The institution offers two streams to future carpenters. The foundation stream gives students the necessary skills to land jobs, so they can begin apprenticeships. The second stream gives students already working in the industry an opportunity to take courses that will help them earn their apprenticeship.
Dangerfield said the foundations stream at BCIT is full and needs more funding from the government if it is to expand.
When students graduate, he said, they face another problem: not enough companies are offering apprenticeships.
Fulton said she believes the Irish are part of the solution. Irish coming to Canada as permanent residents, she said, can earn their Red Seal, and then as journeymen train apprentices.
But O'Sullivan said the immigration process isn't easy. He said he's applied many times to become a permanent resident but has been rejected.
In one instance, O'Sullivan said he was told he was too qualified as a carpenter to immigrate because only two years, not an apprenticeship, was required.
O'Sullivan said his current status is guaranteed until 2015, and he has made yet another application for permanent residence.