B.C. construction industry leaders plan to fast-track skilled trades workers from Europe through Canada’s immigration process to help solve the province’s skilled labour shortage.
Next month, Vancouver Regional Construction Association (VRCA) president Keith Sashaw heads to Europe to promote B.C. construction-job opportunities in three countries – Germany, England and Scotland – to recruit journeymen-level employees who can help meet increasing demand for workers on Olympic, major infrastructure and other projects.
European employees would then be hired in conjunction with the provincial nominee program, which allows provinces to expedite an immigrant’s work permit and landed immigrant applications.
“If a worker has a legitimate job offer from a B.C.-based company, they can apply for a work permit and be working in the province in two or three months,” says Sashaw.
The Construction Sector Council (CSC), a national organization funded by industry and government that aims to increase Canada’s skilled construction workforce, estimates B.C. will face a 50-per- cent increase in demand for skilled trades workers by 2013. That means the province will require 60,000 new workers.
Driving the demand is Canada’s aging population, increased demand for technological skills and a strong construction market. Several construction projects are ramping up this year and next as B.C. prepares to complete several major projects in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
In addition to Olympic venues, major projects include the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre expansion, the Sea-to-Sky Highway expansion and the Canada (formerly RAV) rapid transit line between Vancouver Airport and downtown.
New-home construction is also expected to remain strong throughout the period.
“Right now, there’s a demand for almost all trades in the construction industry,” says Sashaw, adding there is a particularly strong need for estimators and site superintendents.
This trip will be Sashaw’s first recruiting driving in Europe, but he anticipates he may return in future years if this one is successful – which he expects it to be, although he has not set any goals in terms of numbers. Last year, he says, a B.C. company attended a job fair in Europe in March and hired an employee who started working in June and has already received landed immigrant status.
The B.C. provincial nominee program (BC PNP) is part of an agreement between Ottawa and the provinces that allows provincial governments more say in determining which immigrants can enter Canada.
The “strategic occupations” categories of the BC PNP allow Premier Gordon Campbell’s government to select highly skilled immigrants to fill critical labour shortages in the province.
An immigrant with a confirmed job offer will receive faster processing of a permanent-residence visa application through Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The employer must make the application on behalf of the employee.
Sashaw’s aim is to increase awareness of B.C. construction job opportunities on a global basis. He will act as a facilitator between companies and prospective employees at five career fairs, distributing information about each firm to potential recruits. Companies will then interview and screen employees, and assist in immigration processing.
VRCA member companies are also invited to go on the trip at their own expense. Companies who don’t attend will still be able to have materials distributed at the career fairs free of charge.
The CSC and other construction industry groups have identified immigrants, women and Aboriginals as potential sources of skilled-labour supply.
But the national group warns language barriers, concerns surrounding the recognition of credentials and a lack of Canadian-based training make immigrants a long-term solution rather than a short-term fix.
However, Sashaw and other B.C. industry leaders say recognition of the European credentials should not be a problem, because British and German training standards are among the highest in the world and most of B.C.’s trades do not require certification.
The Calgary-based Canada West Foundation, a think tank which makes recommendations on government policy, has called for more use of provincial nominee programs to help fill skill shortages.
Vancouver-area construction industry leaders welcomed the VRCA’s recruiting mission.
“We’ve got to do everything we can to increase the pool of skilled labour here,” says Peter Simpson, CEO of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association. “If it means going to Europe to recruit the workers with skilled crafts, that’s a good idea. We have to look at all the options.”
Simpson says the shortage has reached the point where some B.C. companies have raided others for skilled labour.
“We’ve always had a problem with theft of materials from the jobsite,” he says. “Now, we’ve got a problem with theft of bodies – workers, basically.”
Simpson says some employers are going to rival companies’ jobsites and hiring away their employees.
The raiding companies are paying wages well over the market standard and providing cash signing bonuses.
Other employees are also delaying retirement because of the workload.
All trades are in demand, he says, but B.C. has a particular need for carpenters – especially specialists in form work, framing and finishing.
“Basically, anyone who has skills in all three can write his own ticket,” says Simpson.
He says the provincial nominee program will help immigrant workers settle in B.C. more easily because they arrive legally with guaranteed jobs. Cultural groups can also help them adapt to their new way of life.
“It’s always very hard to leave your homeland,” says Simpson. “It’s not like you’re going from Ontario to B.C. or from Alberta to B.C. You’re crossing the ocean to another way of life. It’s almost like pioneering.”
Philip Hochstein, executive vice-president for the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C., which represents 600 large, medium and small construction companies, says immigration is part of the solution to B.C.’s skilled-labour shortage.
He adds the construction industry is making up for the economic downturn of the 1990s, when companies did not hire apprentices who could be journeymen now and training newcomers.
“We have a lot of trainees,” says Hochstein. “Our apprenticeship numbers are way up. What we lack now are the mentors, the people needed to train them. We’ve gotta get them from somewhere.”
When it comes to attracting workers, he expects B.C.’s living conditions to supercede working conditions.
David Podmore, president and CEO of Vancouver-based Concert Properties, one of Western Canada’s largest developers, says the VRCA mission is a necessary one. He adds the industry also owes its success to post-Second World War European immigrants who built B.C.’s construction industry in the 1950s and ’60s, and supported B.C.’s communities and economy for many years, and therefore companies should go back overseas to recruit more skilled trades workers.
“It’s no different situation today,” says Podmore. “(European countries) are a source of some very highly skilled, very well-qualified people.”
In a speech during the Urban Development Institute’s annual forecasting luncheon, he noted the skilled-labour supply shortage is the most critical issue the industry will face in the next few years.
There is a trend in B.C. to offer shorter courses for specific skills, but he said that “is very short-sighted for the multi-family (development) industry.”
“We need fully-qualified trades that become superintendents … (Shorter training programs are) a short-term solution, but we better not lose sight of the fact that we’ve got to be focusing on long-term solutions for our industry.”
Podmore adds the industry must also make training programs more financially attractive – in other words less expensive – to potential employees by investing in more bursaries, scholarships and sponsorships.
“It’s in our self-interest to do it,” says Podmore.