U.S. workers: Need job, can’t travel to Alberta

Washington wants Ottawa to make it easier for U.S. workers to fill vacancies there

Need job, will travel

Todd Korol/Reuters

With the U.S. unemployment rate stuck above eight per cent, Americans need jobs. And Alberta needs more workers—as many as 114,000 in the next decade, according to provincial figures. It seems like the perfect opportunity—bring trained U.S. workers to help fill the labour shortage in booming Alberta. Yet hiring those workers is difficult, employers complain.

“It hasn’t been our first place to look,” says Jim Finnigan, human resources manager for the North American Construction Group, an Edmonton-based company that serves the oil sands in mining, heavy construction and pipelines. Finnigan needs heavy equipment mechanics, welders, electricians for electric cable shovels, as well as project managers, civil estimators and various types of engineers. He’s brought them in from as far away as Chile and Ireland, and dealt with long delays in government approvals and the uncertainty of skills testing when they arrived. (Some Chileans had to be sent back, he says, because they didn’t have the language skills to pass highly technical written exams even though their spoken English was fine.)

Yet bringing in workers from the U.S. has been far more challenging. It’s not only government red tape, but the difficulties in getting recognition for the workers’ skills. Unlike some countries, the U.S. does not have an equivalent of Canada’s formal apprenticeship and certification system for many skilled trades, adding another layer of complexity to hiring. “The easiest ones to get for us should be U.S. labourers,” says Finnigan. “But the hardest ones to get are the American ones.”

But now the two governments are trying to find ways to make this happen. Business leaders say Canadian and U.S. officials are looking for ways to enable Canadian companies to hire U.S. workers and recognize their trade skills so they can work legally in Canada. The talks are in early stages and there have been no official announcements out of Ottawa. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy also declined to comment “pending further talks with our Canadian partners.”

But Tim Shipton, president of Alberta Enterprise Group, says both governments appear to be hearing the call from business groups to do more. “I’ve talked to high-level U.S. consulate staff within Alberta and they have been very encouraging and good to work with. They recognize that there is great mutual opportunity.” In March, his group joined with 18 other Alberta business associations to form the Alberta Coalition for Action on Labour Shortages. Shipton says labour shortages may be “the biggest challenge the Alberta economy faces.” This shortage “slows economic growth, costs jobs and reduces government revenue,” he adds. “There is an impact right across the entire province and country.”

The business groups, which range from petroleum producers to construction companies and small businesses, are calling for a variety of immigration policy changes to make it easier to bring in foreign workers. The U.S. is the “most natural” place to look, not only because of the shared language and similar culture, says Shipton, but also because of the political implications: building public support for the cross-border Keystone XL oil pipeline the Obama administration blocked last year. “It makes eminent sense from a geopolitical perspective for us to be encouraging as many U.S. workers coming into Canada as possible. A lot of the challenges we have seen for energy infrastructure approval, such as the Keystone XL pipeline, would benefit from more Americans having good-paying jobs from the Canadian energy sector.”

Tom Huffaker, vice-president for policy at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and former U.S. consul general in Calgary, said while his group is looking for ways to train more Canadians, they would also support a policy change that would allow for the fast-tracking of American workers.

For Canada, there is more to this push than just allowing U.S. workers in. Shipton and others see such talks as potentially opening the door to eventual reciprocity from the U.S. side: “If we’re talking about accreditation of workers into Canada, it makes a lot of sense to also talk about accreditation of Canadian workers in the U.S. The ultimate goal would be an omnibus set of standards that we can agree on for accreditation, in particular for the skilled trades.” That would be a dramatic development, says Laura Dawson, a cross-border business consultant in Ottawa. And it could open the door to “greater dialogue between the U.S. and Canada for labour mobility.”

NAFTA provisions for labour mobility are limited—few sectors and few professions are covered. “A senior manager could move easily,” says Dawson, but it’s tough for a skilled worker “even to cross the border to do one-off jobs such as fixing a piece of equipment that a Canadian company might have sold to an American company.” Canadians have long complained about the difficulties of getting permission to work in the U.S., even for a day. While the U.S. has some provisions to bring in temporary farm labourers, it does not have foreign worker programs for medium- and higher-skilled workers. And while Canada and the U.S. have some reciprocal agreements between professional regulators that allow workers to become licensed almost immediately, they are in place for only a handful of professions, such as lawyers and architects. The skilled trades have been largely unrecognized.

“Canada and the U.S. have given lip service to labour mobility since NAFTA,” says Dawson, “but the difficulties of making it a reality have meant there has been little progress. Now that we are talking about mutual recognition of certification, this will bring us much closer to an open market for movement of workers.”

One area for the discussion is how to treat comparable certifications from the U.S. Another is how to make the system flexible enough to recognize the skills acquired through on-the-job experience, rather than a formal apprenticeship process.

Traditionally, the topic of foreign workers has been politically complicated by U.S. concerns about controlling the influx of workers from Mexico. But since the financial crisis, the number of Mexican workers moving to the U.S. has slowed dramatically. Canada, meanwhile, has tended to have higher average unemployment than the U.S., but now the tables have turned. Today unemployment in the U.S. is still high at 8.1 per cent—compared to Canada’s 7.3 per cent—but that figure doesn’t take into account the millions of Americans not counted in the statistics because they have given up looking for work. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, the unemployment rate is just 4.9 per cent.

All of a sudden, “the U.S. is much more interested in looking for opportunities for their workers abroad,” says Dawson. In the past, she adds, the reverse was true: “Canada has been much more interested in talking about labour mobility with the U.S.”

The conversation is getting under way just as the Canadian government has been making unilateral moves to overhaul its immigration system to deal with labour shortages. In April, Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley announced a new fast-track process for employers with good track records who want to hire temporary foreign workers. The department will issue so-called “labour market opinions”—which assess how the offer of employment would likely affect Canadian jobs—within 10 days, rather than the several months businesses say it used to take. Meanwhile, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced another measure in April that would make it easier for temporary foreign workers who have worked in Canada for a year to stay in the country permanently, and announced that foreign workers applying to immigrate to Canada can have their credentials assessed before they leave their home country. A pilot project aimed at helping internationally trained individuals cover the costs of having their credentials recognized in Canada—the Foreign Credential Recognition Loans initiative—was also rolled out recently.

Of course, the focus on foreign workers has raised the question of whether businesses are doing enough to find Canadian workers to fill the gap. In Alberta, one challenge is that Atlantic Canadians, who have traditionally filled many of Alberta’s energy jobs, are now staying home, thanks to offshore oil development off the coast of Newfoundland and the development of the Lower Churchill Basin for hydro power. “We are not able to rely on that pocket of Canadian manpower as we have in the past, because they’re booming themselves,” says Shipton.

Back at North American Construction, CEO Rod Ruston has plenty of ideas for enlarging the Canadian labour pool. Among them are rapidly expanding the number of seats at technical colleges to train young tradespeople, providing tax deductions for travel and relocation costs for workers moving across the country for jobs, and limiting government restrictions on which unions a company can do business with. “You wouldn’t need as many foreign workers if the government was focused on improving the productivity of the existing workforce,” said Ruston.

Still, while foreign workers account for a small portion of the overall workforce, human resources manager Jim Finnigan says they account for more in the “hot skills sets”—engineers, mechanics, welders and electricians. He expects that number will grow. “As things get hotter, and competition gets more fierce, we are going to rely on foreign workers,” he said. “And this issue will become more important over time.”


U.S. workers: Need job, can’t travel to Alberta

  1. Perhaps in return, the US could make it easier for well educated Canadians to get jobs and green cards in its labour market.

    Ideally though, Alberta should be filling these labour needs from Canada’s own labour force. Unemployment is still a problem in many ‘have not’ areas of the country. Lets see more encouragement from the powers that be to increase enrolment in skilled trades and other programs that teach valuable, real world and in demand skills. Lets see less emphasis on the arts, and more in technical trades and engineering so we can provide for our own domestic labour market.

    • Canada has thousands of jobs we can’t fill…including those in the humanities…because we don’t have the trained people.

      And there are qualification problems between provinces, not just countries.

      • Yes OriginalEmily1 HUGE problems between provinces in most fields of certifiable professions.

    • The US has an open-door immigration policy for most Canadian trained doctors and nurses because they have a shortage.
      Alberta is happy to take any Canadians that want to work in this province. Half of Alberta’s population is made up of residents from other parts of Canada. There is constant encouragement for people to enrol in apprenticeship programs. This is just ONE story of the search for skilled labor.

  2. “Unlike some countries, the U.S. does not have an equivalent of Canada’s
    formal apprenticeship and certification system for many skilled trades” …
    “Canadian and U.S. officials are looking for ways to enable Canadian
    companies to hire U.S. workers and recognize their trade skills so they
    can work legally in Canada”…

    Here’s an idea .. if Canada is going to lower the standards for skilled workers to be recognized as tradesmen .. why not lower it for CANADIANS … instead of bringing in non certifiable foreign workers, use non certifiable Canadian workers.

    I suppose this is just too complex for Canada’s politicians to manage? Easier to extend this gift of recognizing the work experience skills of foreign workers than to recognize your own citizens work experience skills?

    I seem to recall ‘short pants george’ stating the USA needed a defensible border between Canada and the USA because all of those 9-11 terrorists entered the USA from Canada. This of course was proven to be 100% wrong, they were all given permits to directly enter the USA by the US government.

    Now what if their sloppy policies see some of these ‘workers’ entering Canada turn out to be terrorists? OH MY!

    • It has nothing to do with “lowering standards”. It is about proving whether someone has eligibility to immigrate as a skilled worker when they have no journeyman status.
      If a Canadian has great skills but never bothered to get their journeyman papers, they likely would have NO problem getting a job in Alberta or Saskatchewan. It is completely in the best interest of a person with skills to complete the certification because the money gets better with each year of education. There are also jobs for new Canadian apprentices.

      • “It is about proving whether someone has eligibility to immigrate as a skilled worker when they have no journeyman status”……

        Gee Healthcare Insider, that sounds a LOT like a lower standard to me.

        If you are Canadian you must have completed a 4 or 5 year apprenticeship and passed a certifying exam… if you are from the USA just say you know how to do it and that’s good enough…???

        This has nothing to do with lowering standards? K…

        • Welll, cleargreen….given that the US is building skyscrapers and bridges, etc. OBVIOUSLY they have highly skilled and qualified tradespeople like carpenters and welders. However, they never saw fit to establish and FORMAL certifying process for them. Does it mean that all of the tradespeople who have worked in the US are substandard to Canadian tradespeople?
          How do you suppose the first journeymen got their “certification” in Canada????? Can’t guess….I’ll tell you. They were a bunch of experienced and knowledgeable people in the trade and they went to a weekend convention and wrote an exam and were granted journeymen status when they passed. No four year apprentice for them. How do I know this? I have family members who are tile-setters and that recently became a journeyman trade but they had lots of experience and knowledge so they were “grandfathered in”.

  3. Gee, funny how things change when the shoe is on the other foot. I remember in the 90’s I was a highly skilled IT consultant doing contracts in the US. Every time I crossed the border US Immigration agents made me feel like I was some kind of refugee from Somalia.

  4. Tell them that if they approve the pipeline we may consider looking at making easier for the to come here for the short term.

    A little quid pro quo on their behalf is required.

  5. This seems like a no brainer, lower the standards for our workers and/or make it rediculously easy to enroll in a trades program in one of the thousands of colleges that offer them, and assist with the relocating canadians. Yes hiring americans will help, but hiring canadians first helps everyone. In four years when all these kids graduate their trades programs they will have to compete with american resumes if they decide to make it too easy, and business doesnt care where the labour comes from our protection is our government, and they need to protect us from this big business demand. our jobs cant be for sale as well as our resources or we are in trouble.

  6. NO, just a plain, uncomplicated NO. Canada has a population of just over 33 million, the US is over 330 million. Surely Canada can find the peeps it needs, without having to go outside of Canada. We work very hard to train and certify our skilled trades people but they need to create a standard that is recognized all across Canada not just in one province. It is not our problem that the US does not train their people to international standards as well as federal ones. Sorry we are not “USA NORTH” we are CANADA !!

  7. Workers from the USA is a prefect match they speak English they could commute of course qualified workers from Canada would get first chance but it’s unlikely there is enough people in Canada to fill all the position for a massive project like this. My son and I own a small NAPA parts store in Alberta and can’t find parts personnel

  8. Haha, isn’t it in America where there is a big hype over Alberta’s “dirty oil”? How they are so desperately rallying against the Key Stone Pipeline… would that not help with their “employment” problem? And I am pretty sure Harper was, even then, wanting to help the south out when he mentioned in a interview that it will give a lot more job opportunities for them. Continuing with my previous statement though about them being against the oil sands… why would they want to work for the company they dis-like so much?
    I just dont understand, also, how it is so dang hard to get even a Green card to be able to work down there for a summer. Then here they are wanting us to give them jobs with no sweat.
    And to the people who say, “if they want jobs in Canada, allow us to receive jobs over there!” Umm… if that was the case, then they would not be in a employment problem… How can they give us jobs that they do not have?

  9. There is enough Canadians without work why dont they try to find unemployed workers through out Canada to fill the
    gap.I live in ontario and Alberta might be my only option.

  10. The U.S. feds have very little involvement in skills
    trades training and it is left entirely to each state.
    Some highly industrialized states such as Michigan have fairly good
    training and certification programs. Others, Utah for
    example, certify very few trades. The
    big skilled trades unions such as The International Brotherhood of Carpenters
    and Joiners of America (of which the Millwright Union is a part of) and the
    International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have excellent training
    and certification programs. But they are
    mainly construction unions and so you wouldn’t see them in manufacturing
    plants (and the non-union construction jobs).

    Another factor is the culture is quite
    different. Many US companies don’t see
    the need for broad based skilled training such as we provide. They will train people to be able to maintain
    their equipment only. For example, if their equipment only used ball/roller bearings, they would not be interested in their trades people receiving training in the maintenance of plain bearings.

    The result is that a millwright or electrician
    trained entirely in a chemical plant would not be able to easily transfer to a
    auto plant. Hence, there is a lot less
    mobility in the US skilled workforce than in Canada or Europe.

    This lack of broad based skills is one of the
    problems that U.S. skilled trades people face when coming to Canada.

  11. IT is about time we are looking to bring in people for the USA, many skilled excellent people from a similar background country with minimal language issues would be a nice change. I have never understood how it was easier to bring someone from Bulgaria or Africa or the Philippines (Not that they don’t desires the same opportunities! they do) than our #1 one trading partners to the south. I believe we can do a lot to strengthen relationships and who know some of those workers might find Canada a great place to live and want to live here permanently and immigrate this is the real opportunity for Canada to grow and become stronger and it will happen easier with with more English speaking immigration! ….

  12. There is 3 reasons why American workers might not come,

    First and foremost, the US Citizenship taxation regime and all its complexity which assures that they will be double taxed, tax treaties not withstanding. They can not participate in RRSPs very easily.
    Two: FBAR reporting requirements and all the draconian penalties for failure, and
    Three: FATCA with its duplicate reporting requirements. Also if Canada banks are to be compliant with US law, it will have to report them to the IRS and maybe they just don’t want them as customers.

    If they come, they may want to renounce their US Citizenship, so they can live and work as normal Canadians, and wouldn’t that be an embarrassment for the US.

  13. This excellent article overlooks the most basic barrier of all against American workers finding work in Canada. This the barrier of double taxation erected not by Canada but by the US. The bottom line of this barrier is that the US citizen must be prepared to become a Canadaian Citizen and formally renounce his US citizenship to survive in Canada. But that requires time residing in Canada before it can happen.
    Why is this such a barrier? Because US citizens who live and work outside of the US are not only subject to Canadian taxes on their world wide income, including any passive income they may have from the US, but they continue to be subject to US taxes on that same Canadian earned and passive income after relocating to Canada. There is a limited foreign earned income exclusion from US tax and they may claim a foreign tax credit for Canadian taxes and this mitigate double taxation, but the tax forms and records required by the IRS from citizens abroad are so complex that they will require competent – which means exepensive – professional tax assistance lest they make even minor errors subject them to massive penalties. There are FBAR forms and FATCA reports they must submit to Uncle Sam if they open Canadian bank or retirement accounts or invest in Canada. And since US dollar equivalents must be used for filing US tax forms they must keep track of the gain or loss, in US dollar equivalent value, resulting from currency value changes If the value of the Canadian dollar goes up between the day you are paid and the day you spend your pay, you have a capital gain tax payable to the IRS,or a loss if it goes down. The money your Canadian employer desposits in Canadian social security is taxable income in the US even though you never see it. Back in the US employer SS payments are tax free.
    And there is legislation pending in the US Senate, introduced by Sen. Schumer, which would blacklist persons who renounce their US citizenship for tax reasons from ever visiting the US again as long as they live. US style citizenship based taxation, practiced by no other country in the world, is the most signficant barrer against US citizens living and working in any country other than their own. It is plainly a violation of the UN’s Declaration of Universal Rights which guarantees that every person shall be able to freely leave and return to any county; including his own. But that is US tax law.

  14. O , so you can’t get someone to work for min wage so its a labour shortage now. I agree with cleargreen, if we are going to take people with less qualifications, then we should take canadians first who are unqualified rather than import foreigners. It is virtually impossible for a Canadian to get a job in the us as it requires a job offer before hand, meaning applying online and getting them to hire you at the high cost over an america

  15. It seems to me the problem is that Canadian companies are notoriously reluctant to train people. That’s what it comes down to. They want someone who has all the skills and experience needed to start right away. Seems a bit unreasonable to me, since workers have to gain their experience and skills from somewhere! Only in Canada can you have a worker shortage with an education system that is world class and an unemployment rate of over seven percent. It’s time for a change in corporate culture in Canada.

  16. hey my name is mahmoud gami ali gad and am looking 4 job in States all info about me in facebook jerry gamee

  17. The biggest barrier to Americans working in Canada is that Canadians clearly don’t want them here. I don’t know how may “skilled workers” I know just decided to pack up and go home because they couldn’t take the constant barrage of insults and rudeness that Canadians feel so entitled to say. They have great skills, that they learn on the job, because if they don’t American companies have no problem firing them. If you want to survive in American you have to be efficient, fast and competent. There’s no unions to protect them, their medical is dependent on their jobs, they are employed “at will.” Constructive dismissal is perfectly legal. No one is going to hand them anything and they know it. That is, apparently, just not good enough for Canadians and it’s just insulting, not to mention the nightmare situation with the IRS. The minimum an American has to pay to have their taxes filed by a pro in Canada is $400, no matter how much they earn. They don’t need it. No one does.

  18. “Washington wants Ottawa to make it easier for U.S. workers to fill vacancies there”. Yeah, well it goes both ways, but I’ll bet the US has no interest in making it easier for Canadians to work there. They’re all about American job protectionism, we should be too. Why should we do them any favours when they’re not willing to reciprocate?

  19. Hire Canadians!!! There are still many without jobs or low paying jobs. It is the businesses/companies not recruiting as well as they should be and thinking that ‘the grass is greener’ on the otherside.