June 25, 2014 1:25 pm

Jason Kenney warns of coming skilled workers gap

Employment Minister Jason Kenney speaks at a news conference in Ottawa on Friday, June 20, 2014 on reforms to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander is seen in background.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

TORONTO – A shortage of skilled workers will be one of Canada’s greatest future economic challenges, Employment Minister Jason Kenney told a skills summit Wednesday.

The conference held in Toronto brought together stakeholders to discuss the labour market, employee training and those under-represented in the labour force.

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It’s necessary that an “informed national discussion” take place about the condition of Canada’s labour market, in order to address future skills gaps, Kenney said.

READ MORE: Temporary foreign workers program reforms: Winners and losers

“We can acknowledge that we have inadequate labour market information and we need to do a fundamentally better job of getting granular information by region and industry,” he said.

Skills shortages are looming in specific sectors, he added, but it’s not a market-wide issue. The construction, mining and petroleum sectors are examples of industries that will face serious shortages of skilled workers over the next decade, he said.

Skills Canada has estimated that one million skilled trade workers will be needed by 2020, Kenney pointed out.

“We know we have these huge investments and opportunities, particularly in a huge swath of northern Canada, through the massive multibillion-dollar investments in the extractive industries that will require tens if not hundreds of thousands of skilled workers who are not currently available,” Kenney said.

Stephen Cryne, head of the Canadian Employee Relocation Council, said discussions about skills shortages are often short-sighted.

READ MORE: Skills shortage causing anxiety for Canadian businesses

“We’re competing on the global stage for talent. It’s needed to drive our economy forward,” he said, adding that shifting demographics, the globalization of trade and new technologies are worldwide concerns.

In 2012, a McKinsey Global Institute report estimated that by 2020, the global economy could see 90 to 95 million more low-skill workers than employers will need, Cryne said.

He added that this projection highlights the need to compete for workers on an international level, and increase the mobility of workers within Canada.

“How do we get companies to tap into talent across from across Canada? How do we get (workers) to move from areas with pockets of high unemployment?” he said.

Kenney noted that skills shortages are propelled by the inability to attract youth into the trades.

Countrywide, there are 13 different apprenticeship programs with specific rules and requirements, he said.

“Greater harmonization of that regime would make it easier for young apprentices to complete their training and give them the mobility to go where the jobs are,” Kenney said.

He added that stakeholders need to de-stigmatize the trades and encourage young workers to enter skilled vocations.

The minister cited countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom as places where apprenticeship programs offer youth better employment options, calling the programs “radically better.”

He said the Canadian debate over apprenticeship programs has led to a mischaracterization of certain European systems, whereby youth are streamlined into trades from a young age. But he said the programs have now become more “permeable.”

In Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Denmark, Kenney said, about two-thirds of young high school students at the age of 16 enrol in paid apprenticeship programs and graduate at 19 “unencumbered by debt.”

“(They are) graduating with a certificate that is considered to have the same social and economic value as a university degree,” he said.

Young Canadians present a paradox, said Kenney. They are among the most educated in the developed world, but have an unemployment rate of 13.4 per cent, nearly double the general unemployment rate.

“It’s unacceptable,” he said.

The conference comes less than a week after Kenney announced a myriad of changes to the controversial temporary foreign workers program.

The new changes include a limit on the number of foreign workers that large and medium-sized companies are permitted to hire, stiffer penalties for companies found to be violating the new rules and on-site audits and inspections to guard against abuses.

© The Canadian Press, 2014

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