Calling 18,000 Venezuelan workers to oilsands

Alberta college targets thousands of skilled oil workers laid off after labour strife in Venezuela

In answer to the urgent call for skilled trades workers in Alberta, particularly in the oil and gas industry, recruiters are increasingly looking far afield to find job candidates with the right training and experience.

Among them is the Academy of Learning, which is eyeing the pool of 18,000 Venezuelan oil workers who were laid off from the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) in 2002.

The college, which has long recruited students from abroad for its training programs in business administration, health care and information technology, is now setting up a recruitment and training office in Caracas to help employers find foreign tradesworkers and make them job-ready.

“The whole premise for going after these foreign skilled workers is they already possess work experience in their own country,” said Chris Culshaw, director of international programs at the Edmonton-based vocational college.

About 18,000 PDVSA workers were laid off in 2002 after they went on strike to protest the government’s move to replace the company’s management.

The idea of going after these former PDVSA workers originally came to Culshaw when he was in Venezuela and watched the turmoil first-hand. “They were out on the streets, and they’ve got all this experience.”

But bringing foreign workers into Canada is far from straightforward. Under the rules of the Alberta Apprenticeship Board, foreigners can’t come to Canada to take trades training. Instead, they must already possess trades certification prior to arriving in the country. That’s where Culshaw comes in.

The Academy of Learning’s training program will consist of two components. An overseas component preps workers for the required provincial certification exams. A second component consists of what’s called “foreign worker readiness” training, which includes technical English upgrading, as well as workplace safety training. This latter component will take place in Canada.

Only workers with a job offer in hand are eligible for the training, stressed Culshaw. “Employers will tell me, ‘We need 20 welders,’ and through my network of contacts in the country, I’ll find a number of candidates. The employer says, ‘We want this person, this person and that person,’ and that’s when the training kicks in,” said Culshaw.

Recently, the Academy of Learning also signed an agreement with the Leduc-Nisku Economic Development Authority, which represents some 2,600 employers in Nisku Business Park in the town of Leduc. Employment in the Nisku Business Park has tripled over the last decade, from 4,000 12 years ago to 14,000 workers today, said Pat Klak, executive director of the economic development authority.

“We are the oilfield supply and services sector in Western Canada. And we can’t keep up,” said Klak, noting that the province of Alberta has plans for oilsands projects totalling $59 billion to $63 billion. “We at the economic authority have been working at trying to grow our skilled workforce. Maintaining it isn’t enough.”

Klak said Venezuela isn’t the only overseas labour market drawing recruiters. Last year, the economic development authority sent delegates to Cologne, Germany, to look for food processors.

Once they’ve found job candidates abroad, employers can accelerate their entry into Canada via Alberta’s Provincial Nominee Program. The program is employer-driven, which means that skilled workers abroad qualify only if there’s a specific job opening for them in the province. Further, employers need to show that they’ve made efforts to recruit people in Canada, said Janice Schroeder, spokesperson for the Department of Alberta Economic Development.

The program, currently on pilot status since it was set up in March 2003, has brought 760 workers to Alberta, “from medical specialists to nurses to master butchers to long-distance truck drivers,” said Schroeder.

It takes from nine months to a year to approve workers for entry under the program; an application for immigration as a skilled worker, in contrast, can take from two to five years.

At the Alberta Building Trades Council, public affairs manager Adrien Graci said it’s “mind-boggling” that employers would be looking overseas for workers. “We think there are plenty of Albertan apprentices available, and there are plenty of apprentices across Canada available.” Noting the marked drop-out rate of apprentices in or just after the first year, Graci said part of the problem is employers aren’t interested in providing opportunities for apprentices to continue their training into the third and fourth years.

“So what do we do about these first-year apprentices, whom we have told to go into the trades? What about helping them instead of going overseas?”

And instead of setting up shop to deliver English training, the Academy of Learning could do well to contact the immigrant services agencies in the province to help integrate skilled and experienced newcomers already here, said Graci, adding that resources could also go into upgrading workers in the Aboriginal communities.

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