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Laura Dawson and Danielle Goldfarb on how Alberta recruits U.S workers to plug skills gaps.

By: /
7 October, 2013
By: Danielle Goldfarb
Associate Director of the Conference Board of Canada’s Global Commerce Centre
By: Laura Dawson
Laura Dawson, PhD has more than fifteen years’ experience providing advice to government officials on trade and economic issues in the United States, Canada, Latin America, Russia and CIS, and China.

“What you’re made of is what we’re looking for. Northern Alberta is looking to hire skilled trades workers and staff professionals like you. Household incomes in Alberta are 24 per cent higher than in Washington State. The neighbors are friendly, and the living is good.”

– Ad posted by Edmonton Economic Development Corporation to recruit U.S. workers

While all eyes are on the current Washington standoff, there is another reason Canadians might want to look south of the border.

Canada faces a shortage of skilled workers in high-growth sectors such as mining, engineering, science, construction, and health care. Media attention typically focuses on bringing foreign workers in from China and India. But the role of U.S. workers in Canada is less well-known.

U.S. skilled trades workers are nearby, adapt quickly, and have similar training to Canadians. This makes them well-suited to help fill shortages in Canada’s skilled trades.

There is, however, no simple mechanism to bring in and recognize these workers, even under NAFTA. Workers and employers face lengthy processing times, and uneven recognition of foreign skills and certification.

In the face of this, Alberta has been at the forefront of developing ways to bring U.S. skilled trades workers in and recognize their skills. In fact, Alberta’s government, businesses, and unions have worked together to develop ways to do so.

As described in a new Conference Board report, Skills In Motion: U.S. Workers May Hold the Key to Canada’s Skills Shortage, Alberta took several policy actions to increase the flow of U.S. workers to its projects

  • Introduced a program to reduce red tape for high-demand sectors.
  • Introduced new skills certification measures that are broader and faster than national programs.
  • Opened an office to intensively market and recruit in the U.S.
  • Attracted military veterans transitioning out of active service.
  • Fostered cooperation among employers, federal and provincial governments, labour unions in both the United States and Canada.

Alberta’s success provides some lessons that may apply to other Canadian regions with shortages of skilled workers. A recent Conference Board report, The Need to Make Skills Work: The Cost of Ontario’s Skills Gap, found that Ontario lost more than $4 billion in GDP annually because of skills mismatches.

When considering how to plug skills gaps, provinces and employers should:

  1. Look close to home for skilled labour. Fast-track the interprovincial or international recognition of the skills of workers who are already near sites of high skill shortages. U.S. skilled trades workers have comparable training and experience, understand the language and work culture, can enter Canada without a visa, and live nearby. While the Alberta climate can be “shocking” (as an LA Times article describes), the opportunities are too good for unemployed U.S. workers to pass up.

  2. Work together. In Alberta, employers, unions, regulators, and policy makers collaborated to bring in, and recognize the credentials of skilled U.S. workers.

  3. Adapt to short-burst work patterns. The nature of megaproject construction and resource development presents a new paradigm of work that occurs in short, intensive bursts in geographically dispersed and remote locations.

The last, but most important, lesson is: consider U.S. workers a short-term solution. Bringing in U.S. workers is a stopgap remedy. Once the U.S. economy is back to full strength, American workers will be less inclined to move north. Canada also faces competition from other countries facing skilled labour shortages such as Australia, Germany, and China.

The long-term solution is investment in Canada’s workers so they have the skills needed to work in the high-demand and high-growth sectors of the economy, plus permanent immigration of skilled workers. U.S. workers can help reduce the skills gap for now; a better match in the Canadian workforce can help plug the gap in the future. In the meantime, other regions in Canada may want to take a short look south of the border, and a close look at Alberta’s model.

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