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Job-hungry Alberta scours globe for workers


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Map of the Western provinces. See Image:Canada...
Map of the Western provinces. See Image:Canada provinces blank vide.png for additional information. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Claudia Cattaneo

CALGARY – For the past seven years, the mining community of Baia Mare in Romania’s northern interior has eagerly stepped up to alleviate Alberta’s labour shortages. For Joe Giusti, founder and CEO of one of Western Canada’s largest construction companies, it was a long way to travel to search for workers.

It was hard, too, once he found them. His firm, Giusti Group, had to teach recruits basic English so they would understand safety regulations. They had to meet rigid immigration requirements for temporary foreign workers. They had to be moved to an unfamiliar work environment, and sent back home just as they were getting used to their new jobs and way of life.

Yet Mr. Giusti was so encouraged by the enthusiasm shown by hundreds of young people who answered his calls for carpenters, cement finishers and general labourers, and by their performance in Alberta, he led recruitment missions there several times. Meanwhile, he was pleased to notice how the local community’s economy flourished from a steady influx of Alberta oil cash, as people dressed better, bought new furniture and renovated houses.

‘I invested 40 years of my life to build up a business and I have no people’
“When I went to Romania the first time, it brought me back to the 1960s in Italy,” said the builder, who since moving to Western Canada four decades ago from Treviso, near Venice, completed more than 50,000 multi-family units and took on some of the West’s biggest industrial projects, even as he fine-tuned a passion for oil painting using Titian’s colour techniques.

“I looked at them and I said: These are my people, like the ones from my village. I can see it in their hands. They are hard working people.  They can do anything.”

Employers in Western Canada, and particularly in the ever-expanding oil industry, have been looking for workers farther and farther afield to fill jobs in resource development. The early favourites decades ago were farm kids from Saskatchewan. Then it was women and First Nations. Then it was Newfoundland. Then they brought in planeloads of workers from northern Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia in elaborate fly-in and fly-out schemes.

Today, with those sources tapped out and more and more projects on the horizon, the new fix is foreign labour.

While the practice is not new, what’s new is how many employers, who seem to be sticking with their growth strategies regardless of the state of the global economy, are looking to struggling countries to replenish their workforces – including advanced economies such as the United States and the U.K.

Mr. Giusti is continuing to tap Romania’s workforce and is looking in other foreign markets such as the U.S. for pump operators and mechanics, who must be fluent in English.

And yet he is watching with anxiety Western Canada’s rising economy. With a staff of 500 and 200 job openings he is struggling to fill, he no longer accepts construction work in Calgary, while his family-owned company doubles down on work already under way, including a 1,500-worker camp and a processing plant for Husky Energy Inc.’s Sunrise oil sands project northeast of Fort McMurray.

“We are creating a mess,” Mr. Giusti laments. “There is a boom, and there are few qualified people. Most of the jobs are done with unqualified people and improper workmanship. I would say lousy workmanship — and for a huge amount of money.”

The push for foreign labour is in part a response to immigration reforms announced two months ago by Jason Kenney, the federal immigration minister, that opened up access to skilled tradesmen and make it possible for them to come to Canada as permanent residents, rather as temporary foreign workers.

Workforce pressures have been mounting for a long time. Western Canadian employers are concerned about Baby Boomer retirements and leakage to other sectors. They are worried that workers laid off in the 2008/2009 financial downturn may have left the industry. They complain that Canada’s youth are snubbing trades because they don’t consider them as prestigious, the work is hard and drug and alcohol use isn’t allowed because of safety concerns.

Increasing foreign investment is also playing a role. International companies, from Europe to China, are clamoring to bring in their own staff to work on their projects.

While the growing list of mega-projects in the Alberta oil sands, Saskatchewan’s potash industry, new pipelines, new liquefied natural gas projects in British Columbia is good news for Canada’s economy, it also raises questions about who will do the work. The labour markets of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where most of the projects are based, are already the tightest in the country, each with an unemployment rate of 4.5% in May.
Projections show a staggering number of jobs will open up in coming years.

In a recent study, the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada predicted the oil and gas industry alone will need to fill 15,000 direct jobs between now and 2015, on an industry base of about 187,000, just to replace retiring employees or those moving to other sectors, and not including employees moving from company to company.

Growth projects beyond 2015 — when many major energy projects are scheduled to begin construction — aren’t even taken into account. Even an economic pullback related to a softening global economy won’t matter.

“Right now, [oil and gas] exploration and production companies are actually hiring more and retaining more than they need to given their current activity because they are preparing for growth and for the loss of experienced people,” said Cheryl Knight, the council’s executive director and CEO. “No downturn is going to eliminate that. It’s more a structural issue. I believe these [economic] cycles are going to have less of an impact on hiring than they have in the past.”

Ms. Knight said the oil and gas industry tends to hire new entrants right out of school, but there are not enough of them to replace the skills shortage that is looming because of retirements. That’s one reason for the focus on foreign-trained workers.

The construction industry, which in Western Canada is heavily focused on projects related to the oil industry and other resource sectors, has even bigger job requirements. Mr. Kenney spoke of tens if not hundreds of thousands of job shortages in the skilled trades in the next decade when he announced the immigration reforms.

The Alberta government estimates there will be 114,000 more jobs of all kinds than people in the province in the next 10 years.

Mark Salkeld, president and CEO, Petroleum Services Association of Canada, said his members have thousands of job openings and are aggressively pursuing foreign workers.

Among the occupations in most demand are heavy-duty mechanics, truck drivers, welders, electricians, rig labourers, field supervisors, petroleum technologists.

“This sector has grown with respect to international exposure,” Mr. Salkeld said. “We are getting experience in other countries. And we are seeing what’s out there for talent, whether it’s Russia, or South America, or Australia. There is a lot of talent that would work well in our industry and we are going after that.

“Just like Australia is coming here, we are going there,” he said, referring to a recent job fair in Calgary by some of Australia’s top energy employers who are looking to recruit 100,000 people to man their booming energy industry.

Some companies, meanwhile, are feeling the pinch of labour shortages.

One of them is Concord Well Servicing, a unit of Calgary’s Tervita Corp. that brought in 16 Mexicans to man drilling rigs last winter. With a staff of 4,700, Tervita plans to hire 2,000 people every year for the next five years and sees foreign workers a part of the solution.

“We find ourselves in a position — as do a lot of our competitors — where we’re completely sold out,” CEO Deborah Close said recently in the Calgary Herald. “It’s not because we’re sold out of equipment; we are sold out of crews. It is the people shortage that is our constraint for growth.”

Calgary Economic Development is planning recruitment missions in coming months to the U.S. and the U.K.

In August, the agency is leading Calgary employers to Riverside County, Calif., where the unemployment rate is 12.8%, and to Clark County, Nev., where the unemployment rate is 12.1%. The two communities have 25,000 unemployed construction workers who haven’t had a paycheque for 90 weeks or more and don’t expect one in the next three to four years because of the poor U.S. economy.

“If there is a way to move the economy forward, and provide opportunities so certain projects aren’t shut down, we all prosper,” said Jeannette Sutherland, manager of workforce and productivity with Calgary Economic Development.

“To know there is a motivated supply of workers [in the U.S.] with similar skill sets, on top of the supply that we have in Alberta, and employers are very interested in looking at options.”

As part of the program, Calgary is working with business organizations in the two U.S. communities to facilitate the temporary workforce transfer.

More recruitment missions will be held in October in Ireland, where the unemployment rate is at a 20-year-high of 14.4%, and in Scotland, where the unemployment rate is 10.4%. In both countries, many skilled workers are looking to leave, Ms. Sutherland said.

Mr. Giusti says Western Canada must increase its labour pool, or the consequences for many businesses and projects will be severe, including high costs and poorly built projects.

“Companies like us will close up,” he said. “Our group cannot stay in business. I invested 40 years of my life to build up a business and I have no people.”

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