U.S. workers: Need job, can't travel to Alberta

Washington wants Ottawa to make it easier for U.S. workers to fill vacancies there

Need job, will travel

Todd Korol/Reuters

With the U.S. unemployment rate stuck above eight per cent, Americans need jobs. And Alberta needs more workers—as many as 114,000 in the next decade, according to provincial figures. It seems like the perfect opportunity—bring trained U.S. workers to help fill the labour shortage in booming Alberta. Yet hiring those workers is difficult, employers complain.

“It hasn’t been our first place to look,” says Jim Finnigan, human resources manager for the North American Construction Group, an Edmonton-based company that serves the oil sands in mining, heavy construction and pipelines. Finnigan needs heavy equipment mechanics, welders, electricians for electric cable shovels, as well as project managers, civil estimators and various types of engineers. He’s brought them in from as far away as Chile and Ireland, and dealt with long delays in government approvals and the uncertainty of skills testing when they arrived. (Some Chileans had to be sent back, he says, because they didn’t have the language skills to pass highly technical written exams even though their spoken English was fine.)

Yet bringing in workers from the U.S. has been far more challenging. It’s not only government red tape, but the difficulties in getting recognition for the workers’ skills. Unlike some countries, the U.S. does not have an equivalent of Canada’s formal apprenticeship and certification system for many skilled trades, adding another layer of complexity to hiring. “The easiest ones to get for us should be U.S. labourers,” says Finnigan. “But the hardest ones to get are the American ones.”

But now the two governments are trying to find ways to make this happen. Business leaders say Canadian and U.S. officials are looking for ways to enable Canadian companies to hire U.S. workers and recognize their trade skills so they can work legally in Canada. The talks are in early stages and there have been no official announcements out of Ottawa. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy also declined to comment “pending further talks with our Canadian partners.”

But Tim Shipton, president of Alberta Enterprise Group, says both governments appear to be hearing the call from business groups to do more. “I’ve talked to high-level U.S. consulate staff within Alberta and they have been very encouraging and good to work with. They recognize that there is great mutual opportunity.” In March, his group joined with 18 other Alberta business associations to form the Alberta Coalition for Action on Labour Shortages. Shipton says labour shortages may be “the biggest challenge the Alberta economy faces.” This shortage “slows economic growth, costs jobs and reduces government revenue,” he adds. “There is an impact right across the entire province and country.”

The business groups, which range from petroleum producers to construction companies and small businesses, are calling for a variety of immigration policy changes to make it easier to bring in foreign workers. The U.S. is the “most natural” place to look, not only because of the shared language and similar culture, says Shipton, but also because of the political implications: building public support for the cross-border Keystone XL oil pipeline the Obama administration blocked last year. “It makes eminent sense from a geopolitical perspective for us to be encouraging as many U.S. workers coming into Canada as possible. A lot of the challenges we have seen for energy infrastructure approval, such as the Keystone XL pipeline, would benefit from more Americans having good-paying jobs from the Canadian energy sector.”

Tom Huffaker, vice-president for policy at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and former U.S. consul general in Calgary, said while his group is looking for ways to train more Canadians, they would also support a policy change that would allow for the fast-tracking of American workers.

For Canada, there is more to this push than just allowing U.S. workers in. Shipton and others see such talks as potentially opening the door to eventual reciprocity from the U.S. side: “If we’re talking about accreditation of workers into Canada, it makes a lot of sense to also talk about accreditation of Canadian workers in the U.S. The ultimate goal would be an omnibus set of standards that we can agree on for accreditation, in particular for the skilled trades.” That would be a dramatic development, says Laura Dawson, a cross-border business consultant in Ottawa. And it could open the door to “greater dialogue between the U.S. and Canada for labour mobility.”

NAFTA provisions for labour mobility are limited—few sectors and few professions are covered. “A senior manager could move easily,” says Dawson, but it’s tough for a skilled worker “even to cross the border to do one-off jobs such as fixing a piece of equipment that a Canadian company might have sold to an American company.” Canadians have long complained about the difficulties of getting permission to work in the U.S., even for a day. While the U.S. has some provisions to bring in temporary farm labourers, it does not have foreign worker programs for medium- and higher-skilled workers. And while Canada and the U.S. have some reciprocal agreements between professional regulators that allow workers to become licensed almost immediately, they are in place for only a handful of professions, such as lawyers and architects. The skilled trades have been largely unrecognized.

“Canada and the U.S. have given lip service to labour mobility since NAFTA,” says Dawson, “but the difficulties of making it a reality have meant there has been little progress. Now that we are talking about mutual recognition of certification, this will bring us much closer to an open market for movement of workers.”

One area for the discussion is how to treat comparable certifications from the U.S. Another is how to make the system flexible enough to recognize the skills acquired through on-the-job experience, rather than a formal apprenticeship process.

Traditionally, the topic of foreign workers has been politically complicated by U.S. concerns about controlling the influx of workers from Mexico. But since the financial crisis, the number of Mexican workers moving to the U.S. has slowed dramatically. Canada, meanwhile, has tended to have higher average unemployment than the U.S., but now the tables have turned. Today unemployment in the U.S. is still high at 8.1 per cent—compared to Canada’s 7.3 per cent—but that figure doesn’t take into account the millions of Americans not counted in the statistics because they have given up looking for work. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, the unemployment rate is just 4.9 per cent.

All of a sudden, “the U.S. is much more interested in looking for opportunities for their workers abroad,” says Dawson. In the past, she adds, the reverse was true: “Canada has been much more interested in talking about labour mobility with the U.S.”

The conversation is getting under way just as the Canadian government has been making unilateral moves to overhaul its immigration system to deal with labour shortages. In April, Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley announced a new fast-track process for employers with good track records who want to hire temporary foreign workers. The department will issue so-called “labour market opinions”—which assess how the offer of employment would likely affect Canadian jobs—within 10 days, rather than the several months businesses say it used to take. Meanwhile, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced another measure in April that would make it easier for temporary foreign workers who have worked in Canada for a year to stay in the country permanently, and announced that foreign workers applying to immigrate to Canada can have their credentials assessed before they leave their home country. A pilot project aimed at helping internationally trained individuals cover the costs of having their credentials recognized in Canada—the Foreign Credential Recognition Loans initiative—was also rolled out recently.

Of course, the focus on foreign workers has raised the question of whether businesses are doing enough to find Canadian workers to fill the gap. In Alberta, one challenge is that Atlantic Canadians, who have traditionally filled many of Alberta’s energy jobs, are now staying home, thanks to offshore oil development off the coast of Newfoundland and the development of the Lower Churchill Basin for hydro power. “We are not able to rely on that pocket of Canadian manpower as we have in the past, because they’re booming themselves,” says Shipton.

Back at North American Construction, CEO Rod Ruston has plenty of ideas for enlarging the Canadian labour pool. Among them are rapidly expanding the number of seats at technical colleges to train young tradespeople, providing tax deductions for travel and relocation costs for workers moving across the country for jobs, and limiting government restrictions on which unions a company can do business with. “You wouldn’t need as many foreign workers if the government was focused on improving the productivity of the existing workforce,” said Ruston.

Still, while foreign workers account for a small portion of the overall workforce, human resources manager Jim Finnigan says they account for more in the “hot skills sets”—engineers, mechanics, welders and electricians. He expects that number will grow. “As things get hotter, and competition gets more fierce, we are going to rely on foreign workers,” he said. “And this issue will become more important over time.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.