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Shortage of skilled workers could jeopardize Canada's economic future

Canada's Minister of Employment and Social Development and Minister for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons Friday June 20, 2014 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

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Canada's Minister of Employment and Social Development and Minister for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons Friday June 20, 2014 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

TORONTO - A shortage of skilled workers is the biggest challenge many Canadian businesses face today, Employment Minister Jason Kenney told a skills summit Wednesday, warning it could also jeopardize Canada's economic development in the future.

The problem would continue to grow as the population ages, Kenney told the one-day conference, which brought together stakeholders to discuss the labour market, employee training and those under-represented in the labour force.

Currently 30 per cent of the skilled trade workers in Canada are baby boomers, Kenney said, adding that they will soon retire.

"They are going to take with them a lifetime of knowledge and skill," he said.

It's necessary that an "informed national discussion" take place about the condition of Canada's labour market, in order to address future skills gaps, Kenney said.

"We can acknowledge that we have inadequate labour market information and we need to do a fundamentally better job of getting granular information by region and industry," he said.

Skilled workers shortages are looming in specific sectors, he added, but it's not a market-wide issue. The construction, mining and petroleum sectors are examples of industries that will face serious shortages of skilled workers over the next decade, he said.

Skills Canada, a group that promotes careers in skilled trades and technologies to Canadian youth, has estimated that one million skilled trade workers will be needed by 2020, Kenney pointed out.

"We know we have these huge investments and opportunities, particularly in a huge swath of northern Canada, through the massive multibillion-dollar investments in the extractive industries that will require tens if not hundreds of thousands of skilled workers who are not currently available," Kenney said.

The summit came less than a week after the government announced major changes to the controversial temporary foreign workers program, which include a cap on the number of foreign workers companies can hire, stiffer penalties for businesses found to be violating the new rules and on-site audits and inspections to guard against abuses.

As Kenney began to speak at a news conference wrapping up the summit, he was interrupted by two protesters who expressed anger over the changes.

Within the first minute of Kenney's remarks, a protester stood up and shouted about unfair treatment of temporary foreign workers.

"You are excluding people from rights and services. Immigrants need full permanent immigration status," he said. "This is a mass deportation order."

The protester was escorted from the room.

Shortly afterwards, a second man interrupted Kenney, this time protesting in French, before he was also escorted out.

Kenney ignored the incident and continued with his remarks about the need to close the expanding skills gaps in certain sectors.

"We spend more than virtually any other country on public investments and job training and skills development, and yet we have unacceptably high levels of unemployment amongst young Canadians, aboriginal Canadians, new immigrants, and persons with disabilities," he said.

Stephen Cryne, head of the Canadian Employee Relocation Council, said discussions about skills shortages are often short-sighted.

"We're competing on the global stage for talent. It's needed to drive our economy forward," he said, adding that shifting demographics, the globalization of trade and new technologies are worldwide concerns.

In 2012, a McKinsey Global Institute report estimated that by 2020, the global economy could see 90 to 95 million more low-skill workers than employers will need, Cryne said.

He added that this projection highlights the need to compete for workers on an international level, and increase the mobility of workers within Canada.

Kenney noted that skills shortages are propelled by the inability to attract youth into the trades.

Countrywide, there are 13 different apprenticeship programs with specific rules and requirements, he said.

"Greater harmonization of that regime would make it easier for young apprentices to complete their training and give them the mobility to go where the jobs are."

He cited countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom as places where apprenticeship programs offer youth better employment options, calling the programs "radically better."

In Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Denmark, Kenney said, about two-thirds of young high school students at the age of 16 enrol in paid apprenticeship programs and graduate at 19 "unencumbered by debt."

"(They are) graduating with a certificate that is considered to have the same social and economic value as a university degree," he said, adding that similar programs need to take root in Canada.

Young Canadians present a paradox, said Kenney. They are among the most educated in the developed world, but have an unemployment rate of 13.4 per cent, nearly double the general unemployment rate.

"It's unacceptable," he said.

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