By Dan Kelly
Published in the Financial Post February 1, 2016
As contemporary events clearly demonstrate, Canada is a nation of immigrants. It’s embedded in our cultural fabric and is part of what defines us. Some of us have been here for generations, others have just arrived, but most Canadians have an immigration story, be it a first-hand account or one passed down through the family.
My mother’s family emigrated from Ukraine in the early 1900s, settling in Sandy Lake, Man., where they farmed, worked hard and built a better life for future generations.
In addition to the contributions of first nations people, Canada was built by people who took a chance to come here and who worked hard to achieve something more. In recent years though, the opportunities for prosperity have become more exclusive, geared toward those with deep pockets or highly specialized degrees, contributing to a serious worker shortage in parts of Canada’s labour force.
A few weeks ago, I met with Minister of Immigration and Refugees, John McCallum, to discuss the plans for the more than 10,000 Syrian refugees that have recently arrived, and what the small business community hopes to see in immigration policy from the new government. I also shared, CFIB’s views on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, or TFWP.
I’ve met many small business owners across Canada who are keen to consider the recent wave of refugees for positions that have been vacant far too long. While the skill levels of many of them have yet to be determined, the good news is even with Canada’s rising number of unemployed, there are many small to medium-sized businesses looking for staff at all skill levels.
There are hundreds of thousands of jobs available across the country — positions business owners can’t seem to fill. CFIB’s latest Help Wanted report notes that there are about 326,000 full-, part-time and temporary positions unfilled jobs across the country due to a lack of qualified candidates. That’s roughly 2.6 per cent of all positions. It’s this inability to find workers that forced many small business owners to turn to the TFWP.
Given the opportunity, Canadian small business owners would overwhelmingly rather hire someone locally available than go through the TFWP, which is costly and time-consuming. Of small business owners who have used the program, 70 per cent note that it costs more than to hire Canadian workers.
But there are still jobs that need filling, and many of the immigrants coming to Canada under the current system are over-qualified for entry level or lower-skilled positions.
CFIB maintains that the first step in reforming the TFWP is to remove the “temporary.” Under our proposed Introduction to Canada Visa, lesser-skilled foreign workers in sectors experiencing labour shortages would be given the opportunity to work for two years with a Canadian employer, as a defined step toward permanent residency. An employee would be able to change jobs within the region if the employer failed to meet its commitments. Any company seeking to hire an entry-level worker from abroad would also need to demonstrate the wage is comparable to what it pays to employ Canadian workers.
Frank McKenna recently suggested new immigrants be asked to spend a few years in Atlantic Canada. The success of Provincial Nominee Programs such as the one in Manitoba show that if immigrants get to know other parts of Canada, there is a good chance they’ll stay. With the employer involved, the Introduction to Canada Visa would help target immigration to where the jobs are, while giving new Canadians a chance to see regions of the country they might not otherwise have seen.
It also would return us to the roots of our immigration system, getting back to the very Canadian notion that immigrants of any skill level, willing to work hard, deserve the opportunity to become Canadian citizens.
The TFWP’s loudest critics are wrong: Canada’s labour problems can’t be solved simply with wage hikes. In some of the hardest-hit regions and sectors in the country, wages have gone up significantly, and it hasn’t made a big difference in the number of Canadians applying for jobs.
That’s because it is not simply an economic equation: There are a growing number of jobs Canadians don’t want to do, no matter what the pay or the rate of unemployment. And for those who say they would gladly make pizzas for $50 an hour, consider that the business owners also have the right to make a living.
This story was originally published in the Financial Post.