Skilled trades stream targets 3,000 foreign workers in 2013

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has unveiled details of a new program intended to speed the arrival to Canada of foreign tradespeople whose skills are in demand.

Kenney said the Skilled Trades Stream will help address serious labour shortages in some regions of the country, including remote regions such as Northern Ontario, and will help grow the economy.

"This is about having an immigration system that works for Canada, works for our economy, works for newcomers [and] fuels our long-term growth and prosperity," Kenney said in making the announcement Monday in Mississauga, Ont.

"For too long, Canada's immigration system has not been open to these in-demand skilled workers. These changes are long overdue and will help us move to a fast and flexible immigration system that works for Canada's economy," Kenney said in a statement accompanying his announcement.

The department will begin accepting applications for the new program on Jan. 2, 2013, but will accept just 3,000 applications in the program's first year to keep processing times to a minimum, the statement said.

Applicants to the skilled trades program will not have to meet the criteria of the points system used for the rest of the federal skilled worker category.

Instead, the new program will give weight to applicants who:

Have a job offer in Canada.

Have basic proficiency in French or English, but not at the level required by the skilled worker points system.

Can prove they have recently worked in the trade and have a minimum of two years' experience.

Can show their occupation falls within the federal trade classification system.

The federal government will consult with the provinces to come up with a list of jobs where there are vacancies before January. The list is expected to include such trades as pipe-fitters, mechanics, transportation jobs and electricians.

"These changes are a great step in the right direction," said Michael Atkinson, president of the Canadian Construction Association.

Atkinson argues it's one of several necessary fixes to an immigration points system that has placed too much emphasis on white collar jobs.

"It was easier under the points system to get in if you had a post-doctorate degree in ancient Greek pottery as opposed to somebody who has 20 years experience as a welder or an electrician. So that was a problem."

Atkinson argues that more tradespeople coming into the permanent immigration stream will reduce the country's reliance on temporary labour.

"The more the skilled worker program begins to become responsive to the needs of industry and employers going forward, the less reliance there would be on the temporary foreign worker program."

The need for skilled tradespeople is particularly acute in Alberta.

It's estimated the province will need 115,000 additional workers in skilled trades over the next 10 years.

Jeanette Sutherland, manager of workforce and productivity at Calgary Economic Development, says the present system has inhibited growth across the western energy, construction, manufacturing and hospitality sectors.

"Under the current federal skilled worker program there's not enough openings," she said.

"There's quite a process employers have to go through to make sure they match Alberta certification and credentialling standards… This is really going to add to our benefit."

Sutherland believes the new program will be geared toward the kinds of jobs that Alberta desperately needs to fill, jobs that almost never got filled through the old system: "Pipefitters, welders, a lot of those skilled trades positions that are significantly in demand."

Sutherland expressed hope the government will expand the number of places in the skilled trades program in the coming years.

And she said she hopes the new program will significantly shorten the wait time for employers who often need workers quickly to complete time-sensitive projects.

Atkinson noted that changes to the immigration system need to be combined with efforts to improve the training and apprenticeship programs available to Canadian workers.

But domestic sources won't be enough, he said, as by 2020 Canada will need an additional 320,000 skilled construction workers.

"Only about half of those are going to come from domestic sources," he said. "So not that immigration is the total answer to our future labour challenges. It's an important part."

Atkinson added that the recently announced plan to create an "expression of interest" system online that would allow prospective skilled workers to register and have their accreditation approved in advance will also move the system in the right direction for tradespeople.

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