B.C. Premier Christy Clark is pressing the federal government for a substantial increase in the number of skilled immigrants who can come to her province this year.
Ms. Clark, accompanied by a squad of B.C. industry leaders, met with federal officials in Ottawa on Thursday at a national jobs roundtable. The provincial government and business leaders are lobbying for higher immigration numbers to fill vacancies for which no one can be found here.
"They are open to hearing the argument," Ms. Clark said. "The most important component of it is the PNP [Provincial Nominee Program], which allows the province to decide which specific skills are being allowed into the province. It's at about 5,500 now; we need it to be 9,000 because we need to skills match people who are going to become Canadian citizens."
British Columbia is expected to lead the country in economic expansion in 2016, but in sectors ranging from apparel to forestry, skills shortages are stifling growth.
Federal Immigration Minister John McCallum has not yet set the country's immigration numbers for the year. With the focus on bringing Syrian refugees to Canada, it is uncertain how many newcomers will be welcomed in other classes of immigration.
"The issue of shortages of people and skills continues to be one of the biggest issues for growing tech companies in British Columbia," said Bill Tam, president and CEO of the BC Technology Industry Association and a member of the B.C. delegation. "We need to make progress particularly around immigration."
Tech companies can expand rapidly – the digital-media firm HootSuite has plans to grow from 600 to 2,000 employees – but require experienced workers that the province cannot currently supply, he said.
"The growth equation requires relevant, current expertise so that we can create the platform to be domestic leaders," Mr. Tam said.
The technology and science sectors are projected to lead growth in British Columbia, but even industries that are struggling with low commodity prices are worried about recruitment.
Susan Yurkovich, president and CEO of the Council of Forest Industries, said forest companies sometimes have to look beyond the British Columbian and Canadian borders for skilled workers.
"We have an aging demographic. Within 10 years, 40 to 50 per cent of our workers will turn over," she said in an interview. "There are jobs in the industry that hard to fill – millwrights and electricians in particular. We expect to be hiring maybe 2,700 to 3,000 people each year for the next 10 years."
The federal government sets immigration levels and determines the total number for each province as well as the different immigration categories – economic, family or humanitarian.
Provinces with a provincial nominee program set their own criteria for selection. On average, British Columbia gets 37,000 new permanent residents each year; of that number, the provincial government chooses 5,500 under the PNP.
"The provincial nominees are the best fit for British Columbia," Shirley Bond, B.C. Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training, said in an interview. "The PNP number is critical for us. … We want to make sure the federal government understands that we need to have a work force that meets the needs of our diverse economy."
In January, the province revamped the rules for provincial nominees after suspending the program last year. Because of cuts to temporary foreign-worker programs and other federal immigration changes, the province was swamped by applicants. Now, potential applicants will be pre-screened on a points system to determine whether they can apply. Scores are based on education, work experience and whether the individual has a job offer in British Columbia.
But British Columbia does not get to shape the criteria for most of the new arrivals, and Chris Friesen of the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. said it is time for some long-term planning around immigration by the federal government. Whether it is humanitarian objectives, family reunification or economic and skills-based immigration, Canada needs to define its agenda: "We need a multiyear plan," Mr. Friesen said. "Yes, we are dealing with a refugee crisis and the government has put forward this bold humanitarian target for Syrian refugees, but we need to have objectives and goals for immigration for better planning."