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Bring in the Irish - 600 workers needed

The current shortage of skilled tradespeople in Western Canada is so dire that the BC Construction Association is returning to Ireland this month to hire 600 people, said the group's vice-president.

In fact, even if one-in-five students graduating from high school in BC during the next three years were to pursue a trade, there still wouldn't be enough workers to fill shortages in the province's construction industry, said Abigail Fulton.

Not everybody agrees with the recruitment drive, especially the province's labour leaders who argue employers can find skilled, unionized Canadian workers to fill immediate, vacant positions.

Yet, a consensus is developing that there will be a shortage of skilled workers in the coming decade, as proponents of the liquefied natural-gas industry, hydro-electric projects and oil and gas pipelines push their proposals forward.

"There's lots of evidence to suggest we're not doing enough to train construction workers in skilled trades in British Columbia, and if even half these projects come through we're going to have a crisis unless we start now to deal with the problem," said Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Federation of Labour.

The provincial government's own statistics indicate there will be more than one-million job openings over the next decade, and more than 153,000 of those will be among trades, transport, equipment operators and related occupations. Retirements will be responsible for two-thirds of the vacancies, and new economic growth will be behind the remaining third, states the British Columbia Labour Market Outlook 2010-2020.

In the BC construction industry, about 30,500 jobs were expected to go unfilled by 2012, according to the association's own statistics.

To address some of the problem, the association is organizing and hosting the Western Canada Construction Job Expo Oct. 31 in Belfast and Nov. 2 in Dublin, where it will represent about 30 employers, half of them from BC, said Fulton.

Wanted will be workers in more than 50 construction trades, from bricklayers to framing carpenters, power-line technicians to welders. Even architects and structural engineers are in demand.

Two employees of the provincial nominee program, which allows the BC government to nominate individuals to immigrate to Canada, will attend, said Skills Training Minister Shirley Bond in an email statement.

"Our staff will be providing seminars on working, living and investing in BC, and will provide important on-the-ground expertise and advice on immigration matters," she said.

Bond said the program is critical in helping BC address the impending labour shortage and offers an accelerated pathway to permanent residence for eligible skilled foreign workers, international graduates, and qualified entrepreneurs and their family members who intend to settle in BC.

The trip won't be the first for the association, which made its first visit in March 2012.

Fulton said the association learned the Irish apprenticeship system was one of the best, and skilled trades people would be able to transition to Canada and earn their Red Seal, an interprovincial standard of excellence in the trades.

She said the association also learned there was an abundance of trades' people.

The Irish economy crashed in 2008 and still hasn't recovered, and last year's job expo drew 20,000 people, she said, adding unemployed tradespeople lined up outside the job fair, down the street and around the corner for as long as two days.

"Listen, these folk are over there, we know their apprenticeship system is excellent, they're looking for work and we need workers," she said.

But the province's labour leaders aren't as excited as Fulton about the expo.

"There are British Columbians and Canadians that probably could do those jobs," said Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the British Columbia and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council.

He said skilled, unionized workers are available, but some companies don't want to hire union workers, so they turn to other sources.

Sinclair also questioned why businesses are turning to the Irish who he alleged are ending up as indentured workers, especially if they are coming to Canada on temporary visas.

"A guy ... who owns a business, a construction business, said to me, 'I like Irish workers because they have to work for me for two years and can't quit.' I mean and I've had that said to me by other employers, too," said Sinclair.

The Canadian Press


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