OTTAWA (Reuters) — Skilled United States workers are coming to Canada in ever greater numbers, driven out by high unemployment at home and tempted in by job shortages in key sectors such as Alberta's growing energy sector.
Government figures show Canada issued 34,185 temporary work permits to Americans last year, just shy of the record 35,060 handed out in 2010, and officials expect that number to keep growing.
"I think we're seeing signs of a reverse brain drain," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said in an interview on Thursday.
"Labour shortages are the biggest economic problem we're facing in many regions and industries in Canada whereas unemployment is the greatest problem in the United States."
Noting that jobless Americans were learning they could "make good money" in Canada, he added: "I think that we'll see actually significant growth in... U.S. foreign workers this year and next as employers become more aware of the issue."
Canada gives out about 180,000 temporary work permits per year, focusing on sectors where workers are needed or on skills that can be hard to find at home.
Canada's economy bounced back from recession more quickly than did that in the United States, and quickly regained all the jobs that had been lost during the downturn. The Canadian unemployment rate was 7.2 per cent last month, while the U.S. jobless rate, measured somewhat differently, was 8.2 per cent.
But the overall Canadian figure masks the fact Western Canadian provinces, especially oil-rich Alberta, cannot fill jobs in construction and manufacturing, given stubborn shortages of skilled workers such as pipe welders, boiler makers and heavy equipment operators.
This could seriously hurt the booming energy industry, one of Canada's main economic drivers. Canada is the single largest exporter of oil and natural gas to the United States and Ottawa says new investments in the energy patch over the next 10 years alone could total $500 billion.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce said in February Canada was "developing a desperate labour shortage and resolving it is key to the continued success of Canadian businesses and the economy."
Canadian firms seeking to hire a U.S. worker used to first have to prove no one in Canada could fill the job, a process that often ate up several months. But Kenney said new reforms means this process now takes only a few days.
Responding to the new rules, the economic development authority in Calgary, the capital of the Alberta energy industry, will launch recruitment missions in the United States later this year, while one employment agency in the province is recruiting among former U.S. military personnel.
Kenney said that one year ago he began hearing from employers that realized they were missing out on "a huge pool of highly qualified employees south of the border who could step right into the Canadian workplace with... the same language, and no training required."
He dismissed the notion Canada could upset the United States by aggressively seeking to recruit Americans and noted the U.S. ambassador had asked Ottawa to make it easier for Canadian firms to hire U.S. workers.
"We're great friends and allies of the United States. We're not sending any kind of a negative or derogatory message," said Kenney. "They see this as a positive development... this is not a zero sum game."
In the late 1990s, the flow of workers was mostly in the other direction, as Canadian workers took well-paid U.S. jobs. Another attraction was the strong U.S. dollar, which in the intervening decade or so has lost roughly one-third of its value against the Canadian dollar.