Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time for a Manitobans-first job policy

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BRANDON -- For the past several months, the "help wanted" and "careers" sections of western Manitoba newspapers have been jammed with advertisements of job openings with employers located throughout the region.

A boom is happening and local employers are struggling with a shortage of workers.

Many Westman businesses have "help wanted" signs in their windows.

Cashiers at a major Brandon retailer are putting flyers listing all of the store's job openings into customers' bags.

Businesses active in Westman's booming oil industry are even running regular radio advertisements, seeking new employees. One company is offering "easy $70,000" salaries to people with Class 1 driver's licences.

These are permanent jobs, offering pay equal or better than that being paid anywhere else in the country. They are available in almost every sector of the local economy, but nobody is applying for them.

In response to the lack of local applicants, Westman employers have expanded their search for workers to other provinces and even other countries.

That explains why a large percentage of the foreign workers recruited through the provincial nominee immigration program end up in Westman each year.

There's something wrong with this picture. Given Manitoba's struggles with chronic unemployment and under-employment in some areas of the province, why are workers being imported to work in areas of the province where unemployment is low?

The situation is similar to that in British Columbia, where that province's government is considering a plan to offer welfare recipients the opportunity to receive training and then relocate to areas facing severe labour shortages.

B.C. Finance Minister Kevin Falcon believes the program would ultimately be cost-free for his government, with the travel and training costs being offset by the social assistance savings. "You can get people off of welfare, which is costing government money, and put them into a job," he says.

Fort Nelson Mayor Bill Streeper supports the plan, saying people could start at $18 an hour in the local oil industry after basic training and be earning $100,000 annually in five years.

"In the oilfield, and with the lack of people, within 10 years everybody would be paying more money back in income tax than what the cost was for the program," he says.

If you are wondering why Manitoba's NDP government hasn't implemented a similar plan to address Westman's labour demand, the response of B.C.'s New Democrats may offer a hint.

They condemn the plan as an attack on the poor. Former B.C. NDP leader Carole James, now the party's social development critic, complains the program wouldn't address the underlying problems that lead some people into social assistance, such as addiction and mental illness.

"Giving them a ticket to move up north is not going to solve the poverty struggles and the education struggles that those individuals are facing," she argues.

In James' orange-coloured world, welfare recipients are both helpless and hopeless, doomed to a lifetime of dependency on the public dole.

James and her NDP colleagues are apparently oblivious of the fact treatable addictions and mental-health issues need not be lifetime impediments to employment, that the objective of skills training is to overcome gaps in a person's education, and that a healthy pay cheque is the best antidote to poverty.

Manitoba's NDP government can argue James does not speak for them, but they have had 12 years to implement a program such as that proposed in B.C. and they have not done so.

Instead of adopting a strategy aimed at encouraging and enabling Manitobans living on social assistance to help reduce Westman's labor shortage, the Selinger government brags about the success of the provincial immigrant worker program. While thousands of employable Manitobans collect welfare, high-paying jobs in and around Brandon are being filled by non-Manitoban workers.

The vast majority of welfare recipients take no pride in the fact they depend on handouts from taxpayers.

They aspire to a better life for themselves and their families. That path starts with a good job -- and there is no shortage of good jobs waiting in Westman.

Manitoba's NDP claims to care about the plight of the less fortunate in our society, but it's time for them to back up their rhetoric with tangible action.

It's time for a plan to help put these people back to work.

Deveryn Ross is political

commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2012 A10

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