Making our immigration policy work (Guest commentary)

Co-operation between government, private sector needed to address labour shortage
By Rowan O’Grady
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/09/2012

Human resource managers across Canada have been navigating through a perfect storm of labour shortages for years.

Retiring baby boomers, a lack of local, skilled professionals and antiquated immigration policies that make it difficult for companies to fill vacant roles with qualified candidates from foreign countries are creating even darker clouds on the horizon.

More than three-quarters (77 per cent) of companies cite “availability of suitable/skilled candidates” as the biggest challenge in attracting top talent, according to Hays Canada’s 2012 Compensation, Benefits, Recruitment and Retention Guide.

What’s more troubling is this challenge isn’t sector-specific — it’s prevalent in many different industries, although some are experiencing it more acutely than others.

In the construction industry, for example, the British Columbia Construction Association recently led a delegation to Ireland to recruit 80,000 candidates for a broad spectrum of roles because of a dearth of local professionals. It’s a bold move that demonstrates how important this issue has become.

But even with this decisive action, I estimate there will be between 300,000 and 400,000 job vacancies over the next five years because of heavy industrial construction projects in Alberta, northern Ontario and Quebec.

The fact remains there simply isn’t enough co-operation between the Canadian government and the private sector to address the labour shortage issue head-on.

However, there may be a break in the clouds. The federal government is proposing sweeping changes to the immigration system that could drastically increase access to skilled foreign talent.

In late February, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney began advocating a program called Expression of Interest that elevates the role of employers in selecting new Canadians.

Some of the proposed changes may be based on an Australian model that includes pre-assessment of skills to determine if candidates match available jobs.

Canada’s culture and economy are built on a successful multicultural history. Newcomers are part of our growth strategy as a nation and will be a vital part of future success.

That’s why involving employers in the decision-making process is welcomed by those in the recruitment business. By changing our policies to align immigration closer to the economy, we can bridge the gap between the surplus of jobs and the scarcity of talent.

Here’s how it could work in Canada. Taking a page from an Australian model, which has addressed many of the challenges Canada is facing, the government would work with the private sector to prioritize a list of high-demand jobs, and then companies would apply to be pre-approved to submit applicants for these positions.

This creates a number of benefits. Companies looking to hire a foreign worker won’t have to go through the exhaustive process of proving the job can’t be filled locally because that’s already been proven. Instead, the foreign-born applicant is virtually guaranteed to be approved for the job on skills merit — sometimes in as little as two to three weeks.

In essence, this approach fills two public priorities. First, it allows the economy to grow quickly, by ensuring we have the right skills for the available jobs. Second, it allows Canada to be an attractive destination for highly skilled immigrants. They will know there is a job — a real job — when they get here.

Change is needed because we are currently not serving either of these priorities well. Right now, a company applying to bring in a foreign worker with the right skills and experience has to navigate a complex, expensive and lengthy system.

There are burdens of proof required each and every time, and because the process can take three months or longer, the business opportunity that presented the need for more labour could be lost.

Also, the current blanket approach to accepting new Canadians because of what they’ve studied — engineering, computer science, finance, medicine — isn’t adequately mapping back to job prospects. In the case of engineering, there are many different sub-fields such as chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical.

The real test of whether an individual’s skills are in demand is simple: Are there employers willing to offer them a position?

Companies often look for people with specific designations within a profession, along with a history of working on specific projects. It’s not good enough to allow new Canadians to enter our workforce simply because they have a degree, as too often this is what fuels the frustrating “doctors driving taxis” scenario we hear so much about.

Getting the private sector and government to collaborate will ensure the right immigrants are selected for the right jobs. And it will fulfill the promise Canada is making to immigrants that a better life is waiting for them here.

More good news is people are finally taking this issue seriously. I participated in a panel discussion with James Bissett, former director of Canada’s immigration service, and Shoshanna Green, immigration lawyer at Green and Spiegel, and Green noted the proposed changes are well and good but it will take political will and resources to ensure these changes to Canada’s immigration policy are made.

It might take some desperation too — the sense of urgency in the market is palpable and the problem compounds itself as we wait for a common sense fix.

Rowan O’Gray is president of Hays Canada, a recruiting firm based in Toronto. For more information, visit www.hays.ca.

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