Canadian construction industry looking overseas for skilled labour

Wed, 2006-04-12 04:02 PM

Canada is experiencing a 32 year low in unemployment. There are now labour shortfalls occuring in certain sectors. The construction industry is suffering huge skilled labour shortages, especially in the province of British Columbia.

With Vancouver hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, employers are desperately searching for construction workers, and companies in the industry are booked more than a year in advance.

Labour shortages have resulted in construction workers being poached from rival companies and salaries are skyrocketing due to high demand. It is estimated that a further 20,000 skilled workers will be needed in the next three years to ensure that Olympic venues will be completed on time.

Companies are increasingly looking to recruit foreign skilled labour to fill these shortfalls in labour.

Construction companies want to hire qualified foreign workers on short-term visas, or sponsor them as skilled workers. Employers are trying, but say they need more help from the relevant government departments to bring workers into BC quickly.

Colin Hansen, Canada's Economic Development Minister, wants British Columbia to be granted a federal "memorandum of understanding," which would allow BC to recruit as many temporary foreign construction workers as needed. This measure has already been introduced for Toronto's construction sector and Alberta's oil industry.

The minister said he asked Monte Solberg, the new federal Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, for a fast-track system for construction workers on short-term work permits.

The Provincial Nominee Program (PNP), run by the Ministry for Economic Development in conjunction with the Department of Immigration, allows BC to select immigrants that would make contributions to the province's economy.

There is no limit on the number of qualified construction workers allowed in, but the process takes three months. Unfortunately the provincial program isn't well known to employers. Since it began in 2001, only 160 skilled construction workers have come to BC under the program.

The other option for employers is to bring in workers on two-year, temporary work visas, which are issued by the federal government and are difficult to obtain.

Jorge Aceytuno, a spokesman at Service Canada said, "The problem with the temporary work visas is it takes time the employers don't have. They need workers now."

Many variables affect how quickly the approval happens. Service Canada must approve the application of individual foreign workers before Immigration Canada can grant temporary visas. Service Canada carries out a "labour market opinion" for each applicant, a report that assesses the need of the industry for each worker based on whether there is truly a shortage of domestic workers in Canada.

Aceytuno went on to say, "Employers must prove that every possible avenue for finding a qualified Canadian construction worker has been exhausted, through national advertising in approved journals. Employers must also confirm that the workers will be paid the same as Canadian workers."

Philip Hochstein, of the provincial Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, said softened visa rules for temporary workers can't come soon enough.

"We want the same rules as IT workers. We don't want to bring in foreign workers to undercut the market rate. Once the work is finished, they go back," he said.