At a time of long unemployment lines in some parts of the country, it might seem odd that Canada is actually suffering from severe labour shortages. The reasons are many, but the main reason is that demand for technically skilled and experienced workers from the economy’s growth sectors is far outstripping supply.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Alberta oil sands. Projections of growth in the coming years indicate the oil sands will not only continue to be a major source of employment in Alberta, they will need many more skilled workers than the region or even Canada as a whole is able to produce.
The Alberta government estimates there will be 114,000 more jobs than people in the province in the next 10 years. The oil and gas sector on its own expects to need 15,000 workers just to replace retiring employees or those moving to other sectors, according to the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada.
Construction worker shortage
The biggest problem is the increasing shortage of construction workers (PDF). Although the shortage is nationwide, Alberta feels it acutely because the oil sands is the single largest employer of skilled trades workers in Canada, and needs to employ many more in the next two decades.
To tackle this challenge, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Canadian building trade union recently announced a partnership to improve workforce mobility, skilled trades training and apprenticeship opportunities, and to streamline immigration.
Every effort is being made by oil sands owners to ensure we’re providing job opportunities for Canadians to be a part of filling the worker shortage. For example, one prospect that is being discussed is the creation of a website for Canadians that will identify job opportunities available, qualifications required and contacts for those wishing to enter an apprenticeship or apply for positions where they have the required credentials.
Meanwhile Suncor and seven other oil sands construction owners have formed the Association for Construction Worker Acquisition (ACWA) to work with government to address the shortage of skilled workers in the Alberta oil sands region. ACWA’s chair is Ron Genereux, Suncor’s vice president, project services, Major Projects.
Temporary foreign workers
One element of the ACWA strategy is the effective use of temporary foreign workers (TFWs). While ACWA member companies prefer to hire locally first, regionally second and nationally third, they are still striving to boost their home supply. Despite increased participation by apprentices, youth, aboriginals and women, as well as productivity improvements and industry partnerships, it’s a fact that domestic labour markets cannot meet industry demand in the short term.
We are pleased the federal government has recognized the need to streamline the TFW program to benefit all parties. But we also accept that TFWs are and should be only one part of a broader strategy. And realistically, it isn’t as efficient or cost-effective to bring in TFWs and familiarize them with local safety standards and practices.
Same wages, same conditions
Some people claim recruiting TFWs is a move to import lower wage workers. While some recent changes to TFW rules theoretically permit slightly lower pay scales for imported workers, TFWs working on Suncor sites will be paid established wages as per the applicable collective agreement. They also have the same working conditions and expectations for safe, quality work as everyone else on site.
Well paid, skilled jobs are the bedrock of a strong economy and underpin thousands of other jobs making the products and providing the services Canadians need. If oil sands owners work together and enjoy the support of governments and the various labour providers, then we can all efficiently address our workforce challenges for the benefit of Alberta and Canada.