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U.S. and Canadian flags at the Reversing Falls Information Centre in Saint John, N.B. (DAVID NICKERSON/CP)
U.S. and Canadian flags at the Reversing Falls Information Centre in Saint John, N.B. (DAVID NICKERSON/CP)

Solving Canada’s skills shortage – with Americans Add to ...

Here’s a nifty way to get the right workers into Canada and help the U.S. unemployment situation at the same time: Encourage Americans to head north and fill skilled positions on this side of the border. That’s the recommendation of a new report from the Conference Board of Canada that makes some interesting points while coming to what some may consider a controversial conclusion.

The crux of the matter is this: Canada has unfilled jobs and U.S. workers may be the best ones to fill them. Yes, Canada had an unemployment rate of 7.1 per cent as of August, but there are plenty of places and plenty of occupations where the unemployment rate is much lower. In Alberta, for example, the unemployment rate is 4.8 per cent and there are an estimated 50,000 unfilled vacancies right now, with about twice that number expected to materialize over the next decade. Why? Because there is a resource boom in that province and that means all kinds of workers are in demand. In particular, there is a need for skilled tradespeople, although there are openings in all kinds of positions, high- and lower-skilled alike.

So why get workers from the U.S.? The simple answer is because they are there. Yes, the workers Canada needs might be elsewhere in Canada (like on the East Coast) or in other countries, but if they are in the U.S., that works fine, too. The potential workers are geographically close, they speak the language (or at least one official language), and employers in Canada can easily judge their education and experience. For their part, would-be U.S. workers are likely to be attracted to Canadian work for the same reasons that anyone else would be: It is available and it pays well, two attributes that are not always easy to find in the U.S. these days.

Alberta has already been successfully finding U.S. workers, fast-tracking them through the proper channels and then getting them working in Fort McMurray (home of Canada’s oil sands) or wherever as soon as possible. As the Conference Board points out, not filling the open positions would not just hurt Alberta employers, it would affect our national economic prospects as well. One-third of the economic benefits of the Alberta oil sands (with projected investment of $364-billion over the next two decades) are expected to accrue to other provinces. So bringing in those U.S. workers is pretty much good for everyone.

Of course, any kind of policy that suggests the best thing to do is to plug in workers from outside the country to fix domestic labour shortages is going to have its critics. And of course it would be a good idea for Canada to train and recruit workers domestically for the next project, or maybe the one after that. But there are a billions of dollars of output at ri sk if we do not get the right workers into the right projects, right now.

Canadians are tolerant of immigrants from all kinds of cultures. Maybe we should focus on being tolerant of those who say “zee” instead of “zed” as well.

Linda Nazareth is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Her book Economorphics: The Trends Changing Today into Tomorrow will be published by Relentless Press in January, 2014. www.economorphics.com

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