B.C. construction industry goes on recruiting trip to Ireland to avoid a ‘crisis’

Steve Mertl
B.C. construction industry goes on recruiting trip to Ireland to avoid a ‘crisis’

Depending on who you talk to, Canada – the West especially – is either suffering from a crisis-level shortage of skilled workers or businesses are gaming the system to import lower-paid labour while leaving unemployed Canadians in the cold.

The B.C. Construction Association thinks it's that first thing. It's heading to Ireland this month to recruit 600 people to help fill vacancies in the province's building boom, The Canadian Press reports.

Association vice-president Abigail Fulton told CP that even if one in five high school students graduating in the next three years takes up a career in the trades, the province's construction sector will still face a shortfall.

The association will be hosting job fairs in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Oct. 31, and Dublin on Nov. 2, featuring 30 employers, half of them from B.C., said Fulton. It's looking for workers in 50 construction trades, everything from bricklayers to welders, as well as architects and structural engineers.

[ Related: Immigration minister goes to Ireland to sell Canada to young workers ]

It's the association's second foray into the Irish labour market, following a visit in March 2012. Ireland has a high-quality apprenticeship program that should make it easy for workers to be accredited in Canada. The country is still also recovering from the 2008 financial crash that ruined the former Celtic Tiger's economy.

The B.C. government is sending along two people from its provincial nominee program, which facilitates immigration to Canada.

"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," Skills Training Minister Shirley Bond told CP in an email.

Canada also is expanding its quota for young Irish immigrants under its International Experience Canada program, going from 6,350 this year, up by 1,000 from 2012, to 10,000 by 2014, according to a news release from Citizenship and Immigration Canada last year.

Ireland, of course, isn't the only prospective recruitment target. Economist Linda Nazareth of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa think tank, wrote in the Globe and Mail last week that Canada should be looking to the troubled U.S. labour market.

"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," Nazareth wrote.

"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."

But not everyone's convinced all this offshore recruitment is necessary. Some labour leaders believe employers aren't looking hard enough for skilled labour at home.

But with a growing list of large-scale resource programs anticipated for British Columbia, they worry about the future.

"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," Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, told CP.

Yet one prominent economist is skeptical the job shortage actually exists.

Don Drummond told the Toronto Star in August that he's found no evidence Canada doesn't have the necessary skilled people to meet demand.

Drummond pointed to Statistics Canada job data that show an oversupply of workers and no wage spikes in skilled trades, which would occur if employers were paying a premium to recruit them. He also questioned Ottawa's ability to predict labour needs accurately, saying the projection models are unreliable.

[ Related: Temporary foreign workers to cost employers $275 each ]

Ottawa came under fire this year over concerns about the ballooning numbers of temporary foreign workers — skilled and unskilled – allowed into the country in the last few years.

The Conservative government announced changes to the program earlier this year, including a requirement to spend more time advertising job vacancies in Canada before going offshore, Postmedia News reported.

“Our government’s number one priority remains jobs, economic growth and long-term prosperity,” Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney said in a statement. “These additional reforms help ensure that Canadians are first in line for available jobs.”

The issue leaped to prominence when unions challenged a new northeastern B.C. mining venture that planned to import 30 miners temporarily from China, arguing no one in Canada was qualified to undertake the specific type of mining required.

The Federal Court of Canada rejected the challenge last spring and the foreign workers were expected to arrive this fall, the Globe and Mail reported in August.