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Action on skills shortage expected

February summit seen as positive move

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Year-end surveys by business organizations this year seem to indicate there is solid optimism business will pick up in 2013.

But the expectations employers have about hiring more workers seem to be tempered by their ongoing concerns about finding the right skilled people to fill the positions.

It's not a new issue and it is not specific to Manitoba.

But it's very complex and has been a nagging feature of this provincial economy for a long time. So the provincial throne speech announcement that a Skills Summit would be held at the end of February has been roundly applauded as a good idea.

It is to be co-chaired by Stephanie Forsyth, president and CEO of Red River College and Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour.

Janine Carmichael, the Manitoba director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) said she's really pleased the skills shortage is getting such attention.

"We have found that the governments that have been successful in engaging a wide variety of folks to come to the table with solutions have been a little more successful in dealing with this issue," she said.

A national study done by Hays Canada released Wednesday showed 62 per cent of Canadian companies believe business activity will increase in 2013 but 78 per cent expect to experience modest to extreme challenges recruiting top talent.

The CFIB released its monthly Business Barometer this week and once again, concerns about the shortage of skilled labour were easily the most pressing concern in Manitoba.

And although the level of confidence was up among small business owners in Manitoba in December, respondents were just as likely to say they would be decreasing their workforce as those who said they would be hiring this year. (A strong majority -- 65 per cent -- said their employment would stay the same.)

Rowan O'Grady, the president of Hays Canada, said skills shortages are to be expected where there are really hot markets such as construction and the resources industries.

"There is just a shortage of people across the board with those guys," he said. "Everything from skilled trades, project manager, estimators, engineers -- there is a shortage there driven by the boom in construction and mining and oil and gas and that will continue on."

The Skills Summit will focus on issues more close to home: excellence in education; apprenticeships and training; First Nations and Métis labour-force development and growing the province's immigration strategy.

The professionals who deal with the issue all the time are the first to say there are all sorts of different ways to deal with the matter.

Immigration is clearly an important area where Manitoba specifically has achieved good results in recent years, and developing the aboriginal labour force is crucial for Manitoba.

Both O'Grady and Carmichael say businesses themselves can do a lot to help their competitive edge when it comes to attracting people.

"You can see the difference when one company's ability to attract and retain staff is far better than the next company in exactly the same industry," O'Grady said. "They will both say there is a real skills shortage but it's causing... massive problems and another just some problems."

Carmichael said there are many pieces to the puzzle.

"In a few weeks we will be releasing a major new study on labour shortages," she said. "One of the things we have asked is what creative solution we tried to attract and retain employees. We asked that in Alberta many years ago and I was blown away by the responses."

When it comes to the issue of education, Forsyth pointed out that there are 82 per cent more apprenticeship grads out of Red River College than there were 10 years ago.

But the issue is much broader than the traditional skilled trades.

One high-profile University of Manitoba professor recently said -- on condition that he not be quoted saying such blasphemy -- many university students would probably be better off in a college program.

Forsyth said there is a mismatch out there with graduates in fields where there are no jobs available and not enough in the fields where there are hot prospects.

"There are recent studies that show on a ratio of six to one college grads are required over university grads to fill shortages in advanced skills," she said. "We have got to change the mindset of people like me and others in my generation that university is the only way to go."

There is no magic bullet out there but a sit-down with 100 or so leaders from government, industry, education and the community at large is probably long overdue.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 3, 2013 B4

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