Employers Advised To Cast A Wider Net For New Employees

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Faced with an aging workforce and rapid economic growth, Alberta employers could benefit from broadening their horizons in looking for new workers, a recent forum on skills and labour shortages was told.

"In Alberta's booming economy, many employers will be limited only by their ability to hire people with the right skills," Eric Newell, former chief executive officer of Syncrude Canada Ltd. said in presentation to the FGL Society, a civic forum on global business issues.

"The way forward as we work together to build a strong and inclusive Alberta is clear," Newell said. "It all starts with a commitment to partnerships and an investment in education."

With nearly one-half of Alberta's aboriginal population under the age of 25, "aboriginal youth represent our top opportunity in the race for talent," he said. By 2010, one-fifth of all youth in Edmonton will be aboriginal and Calgary will not be far behind, said Newell. "We need to respond to this tremendous opportunity."

Over the past three years, CAREERS: the Next Generation, a public-private partnership founded by Newell, has worked with students, parents and elders to develop a community mobilization model in 33 aboriginal communities, the forum heard. In February 2004, 15 aboriginal students at Wabasca entered an oil and gas production field operator program which offered them the chance to earn a high school diploma along with a certification program offered by SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology). One of the organization's goals this year is to expand that opportunity to southern Alberta, he said.

The key aspect is to improve the educational outcomes of aboriginal young people-including urban youth---getting them to understand the value of education and the need to complete Grade 12, said Newell. "Careers in the trades won't open up to you, you've got to have post-secondary," he said "There's no such thing as a Grade 10 truck driver anymore."

However, aboriginal persons are not the only non-traditional source of employees, said Julie Ball, executive director of the Talent Pool Development Society of Alberta, a not-for-profit society aimed at addressing skilled labour shortages in Calgary. Other groups such as young (15 to 24 years of age) and older (over 50 years of age) workers, recent immigrants and persons with disabilities can be valuable employees if given an opportunity to prove themselves, she said.

The society, which began as a sub-committee of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce's human resources committee, was designed to bridge the gap between the need for skilled workers and skilled people who were unemployed or underemployed, she said. The Talent Pool currently is piloting a recruiting software program which will enable an employer with a job listing to "push a button" and send the information to organizations helping to prepare people for the labour market. That group would look at its client base, match resumes with the required skills and forward them to the employer.

With the use of the software, the employer would not have to make 10 or 15 calls, said Ball. "Our goal is to make it fast, easy and efficient for employers to get the resumes from those qualified candidates out there who might not normally come through the door." If all goes well, the Talent Pool plans to roll out the software to the broader employee community by September.

One group that could benefit from the program is new immigrants, said Ball, noting that Calgary attracts about 10,000 a year. Although they are generally younger and better educated than mainstream Calgarians, immigrants often face barriers to employment in the recognition of their foreign education, work experience and professional credentials, she said.

Canada, though, may no longer be the destination of choice for immigrants, she suggested. Other countries (such as Australia) are "raising the bar" and sending the message that immigrants will not need to go through the maze of credential testing and retesting but will be able to practice their profession right away, said Ball.

With the falling Canadian birthrate, immigration now accounts for 50% of total population growth and will continue to increase, said Elizabeth McIsaac, secretariat manager of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employee Council. The multi-stakeholder group is aimed at improving access to employment for immigrants.

However, the wage gap between immigrants and Canadians is growing as six out of 10 immigrants are employed in a job other than the one they were qualified for, she said. The Conference Board of Canada has estimated that amounts to an annual loss to this country of $4 billion to $6 billion, the forum heard.

The assets immigrants bring to Canada are not being effectively leveraged while cities have much to gain, said McIsaac. However, the situation may not change "until demand is at the doorstep of competition," she said. "Leadership and awareness are key."

In Toronto, the employee council has developed a mentorship program in which volunteers such as a civil engineer help a new immigrant civil engineer gain access to employment/and or education opportunities. Mentors also acquaint the immigrant with the Canadian workplace culture while sharing industry contacts and knowledge.

In the discussion that followed, several immigrant professionals attending the forum detailed the struggles they have had to find work in their fields, in part because their foreign training is not accepted by the various professional bodies. Groups such as the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta often are a barrier with their requirement for Canadian work experience, said another participant.

However, Penny Colton, manager of geoscience affairs for the Calgary APEGGA office, said it is often difficult for the association to properly determine educational qualifications from foreign institutions. Immigrants do not need APEGGA registration to work as an engineer in Alberta if they are working under the supervision of a licensed engineer and can gain Canadian work experience by doing so. She acknowledged, though, that many employers insist on an APEGGA registration before hiring an immigrant.


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