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Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Immigration system must be aligned with Ontario’s labour needs

Patrick McManus
Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Immigration system must be aligned with Ontario’s labour needs

One of the biggest challenges we face in Ontario, and across the country, is finding enough skilled workers to meet the growing demand for the construction of critical core infrastructure and new housing.

Construction workers are retiring in waves while governments are pledging billions of dollars for capital projects to rebuild the economy. It’s clear we need a far bigger construction workforce in the country and one way to help facilitate this is to reform our immigration system to help better address identifiable skills gaps.

Ontario’s construction industry has historically counted on tradespeople from other countries to put their skills to work building our water systems, roads, homes and other infrastructure we rely on everyday.

However, changes to our immigration policy in the mid-1990s have hindered our ability to grow these essential trades. At the time, we chose to favour immigrants with higher levels of education and certifications over those with specialized skill sets in order to meet the economic needs of the day, but these policy goals are no longer in sync with our economic needs. They are contributing to a disconnect between labour supply and demand, squeezing out newcomers with in-demand construction skills that Ontario’s economy requires to stay competitive.

The province’s economy is in a much different place than it was 25 years ago. By 2025, it is estimated as many as one in five jobs in Ontario will be in the skilled trades. Baby boomers are retiring from construction in record numbers, just as major projects gear up, from new housing developments to transit lines and new transportation corridors.

Ontario’s construction industry will need to recruit as many as 100,000 new workers this decade. With an estimated 21,000 jobs in construction going unfilled in the second quarter of 2021, there is no time to waste.

That’s why Canada’s immigration policy must be better aligned to fill jobs that are in high demand right now.

Recently, the Ontario Skilled Trades Alliance (OSTA) brought together organizations from across the province for a Summit on Workforce Development.

The OSTA passed a number of resolutions, including increasing the cap on temporary foreign workers (TFW) from 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the workforce at companies that build public infrastructure projects and housing; creating more flexibility for small- and medium-sized enterprises to participate in the TFW program; and, to recognize more in-demand skill sets (such as NOC 7611 – General Labourer & Labourer Helper) recognized within the Skilled Trades stream of the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program. There should also be a focus on making the system less onerous and expensive for companies to participate.

The reality is while labour needs have changed, the system for prioritizing immigrants has not. Most of the infrastructure and residential trades fall under skill levels C and D in our National Occupational Classification (NOC) system. Although these skills are in high demand across the province and country, newcomers with these skills are at the back of the line for our immigration express entry system. In other words, immigration policymakers are not reading the tea leaves.

Too little attention has been paid to labour forecasts, municipal capital investment plans and new residential and commercial building permits. They include all the telltale warning signs that Ontario, and the rest of Canada, is in the midst of a full-on construction labour shortage.

The OSTA is committed to working with government to close Ontario’s skills gap; that gap between the skills that workers have and those employers need. With reforms underway to better promote the trades and move apprentices through Ontario’s skilled trades system more efficiently, we’re pressing for federal solutions. Rethinking Canada’s immigration priorities would also go a long way in addressing the labour shortage and narrowing the skills gap.

Canada’s immigration system should get in step with the times, by moving those immigrants with desperately needed construction skills further up the line.

Patrick McManus is chair of the Ontario Skilled Trades Alliance. Send comments or Industry Perspectives column ideas to editor@dailycommercialnews.com.

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