Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Immigration changes should address skills shortage

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What do immigrants want most from Canada? There are as many answers to that question as there are applicants, although freedom and prosperity are obviously top attractions.

But what does Canada want from immigrants? In the midst of an overhaul of immigration policy, Ottawa's unequivocal answer is skilled labour.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's response to skills shortages at home, and stiff global competition for skilled immigrants, has been to move from a passive system that operated on a first-come, first-served basis. Under the new activist paradigm, the priority is to receive, and even recruit, immigrants whose resumes correspond with Canada's economic priorities.

The transition has not been seamless. To clear the backlog, Ottawa jettisoned 280,000 skilled-immigrant applications received before 2008 and reimbursed $130 million in fees, exposing itself to a class-action lawsuit. But the government now estimates skilled-worker applications will be processed within a year, not the old norm of eight years.

Timeliness and convenience are crucial to attracting talent. The Conservatives have made it easier to retain foreign graduate students and white-collar skilled workers by allowing them to apply for permanent residency from within the country. Canadian work experience required to make that application has been cut in half to 12 months.

Ottawa is also paving the way for skilled tradespeople to supply the needs of the resource economy. Under this new stream, a job offer in Canada and a provincial certificate of qualification might get you in the door if you are in a sought-after blue-collar profession -- an electrician or pipe-fitter, for example.

Sensibly, the threshold has been lowered for language proficiency and post-secondary education in this category. Only 3,000 such applicants are being accepted for now, but the plan is to ramp up this program.

The domestic labour pool cannot fix the skills shortage. Some 300,000 construction jobs will be begging to be filled over the next decade. Without importing skills, Canada's economic development will be severely hampered and labour costs for mega-projects such as Muskrat Falls in Labrador will be driven up.

The government has shown both fortitude and foresight by tailoring immigration policy to the country's growing needs.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 4, 2013 A10

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