Alberta’s labour market has cooled off significantly since the boom years earlier in the decade and, in response to rising unemployment in the province, the government has decided to shelve two immigration programs.
In January 2008, Alberta’s employment rate hit an all-time high of 72.1 per cent and the unemployment rate was the lowest in the country at 3.2 per cent.
“Up until recently, Alberta was in dire need for all workers, from the least skilled to the most skilled. Our employers here could not fill the need domestically,” said Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk.
The Alberta Immigration Nominee Program (AINP), whereby various classes of potential immigrants could be nominated for permanent resident status, helped employers address those needs.
Two of those classes, introduced in 2008, included the family stream, for family members of permanent residents, and the United States visa stream, for temporary foreign workers in the U.S. with an H1B visa. These people could be nominated for permanent resident status without an offer of employment and most found a job within days of arriving in Alberta, said Lukaszuk.
But that all changed when the recession hit at the end of 2008 and unemployment started to rise for all Albertans, he said.
While Alberta’s unemployment rate of 6.3 per cent in July was the lowest since April 2009, it was still higher than Saskatchewan at 5.1 per cent and Manitoba at 5.6 per cent. Also, employment growth in Alberta over the past year has been among the slowest in the country at 1.2 per cent.
So Lukaszuk decided to shelve the family stream and the U.S. visa holder stream of the AINP.
“Bringing individuals to Alberta who are not attached to employment, who will simply come to Alberta and start searching for employment just like unemployed Albertans do, is counter-productive to Albertans who are looking for employment,” said Lukaszuk. “My duty is always to Albertans and Canadians first and making sure they have the first opportunity to secure those jobs before bringing in outside competition.”
In 2009, Alberta issued 4,216 certificates to people under the AINP. Since family members are also nominated, the total number of people nominated was 10,744. Of the 4,216 certificates, 943 were under the U.S. visa stream and 450 were under the family stream.
With a federally imposed cap for the AINP of 5,000, Lukaszuk wants to ensure all immigrants nominated under the program will help employers fill their labour needs.
To help employers that are still having trouble filling specific jobs, the AINP will continue to accept applications from skilled workers, semi-skilled workers in certain occupations, international students, compulsory trades, engineering occupations and self-employed farmers.
If the provincial economy turns around and employers once again need workers of all skill sets, the government will consider bringing back the other two streams, said Lukaszuk.
Temporary program also in spotlight
In the meantime, Lukaszuk would also like the federal government to re-examine the temporary foreign worker program. When the province had a sudden and massive shortage of all kinds of workers, it was a very valuable program, he said.
And while there will always by a need for temporary workers for one-time projects, there are some employers that keep bringing in temporary foreign workers for the same positions over and over again. Given the country’s demographics (low birth rates and an aging population), labour shortages will only become more acute and chronic as time goes on, he said.
“We need to look at a more permanent means of bringing in these workers,” he said.
The AINP is the best solution, but the cap on the number of immigrants who can be nominated limits the effectiveness of the program, said Lukaszuk.
“The provincial nominee program actually works very well, but the caps would have to be significantly higher than what they are right now.”
But any immigration program needs to be responsive to the country’s economic needs, he said. Employers can’t wait months or years after nominating a potential worker before receiving approval from the federal government, he said.
Lukaszuk’s parliamentary assistant, MLA Teresa Woo-Paw, will lead a series of roundtable discussions around the province to reassess the temporary foreign worker program. Her findings will be the basis for recommendations to Ottawa on how to improve the program.
But Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan would like to see the government do away with the temporary foreign worker program altogether.
“It’s not just a question of whether or not the program is working now that the economy has slowed down. From our perspective, it’s never worked well, even during the boom,” he said. “It was a lose-lose proposition for everyone involved, from Canadian workers to temporary foreign workers themselves.”
It was exploitative for the temporary workers and it allowed employers to undermine wages and working conditions for Canadians, he said.
Canada’s entire immigration system needs to be overhauled, said Sergio Karas, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer and chair of the Ontario Bar Association citizenship and immigration section.
Immigration programs, be they national or provincial, tend to bring in too many people when the economy is hot and then there’s no plan in place to deal with them when the jobs are gone, he said.
“We don’t seem to be able to devise immigration programs that can be geared toward building the workforce at various levels rather than responding to very immediate needs,” said Karas.
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