Alberta construction industry stakeholders are showing support for a new federal-provincial government initiative to ensure local workers are hired first before employers import foreign nationals, but there is uncertainty about the benefits of the pilot project.
"I think this is a great initiative by the federal and provincial governments," said Warren Fraleigh, executive director for the Building Trades of Alberta.
"The bottom line is that the Alberta Building Trades support the initiative taken by government on this new program, which aims to more closely monitor and ensure that Alberta workers get the first shot at going back to work."
The new Employer Liaison Service was launched by two levels of government at a news conference hosted by the Alberta Construction Association (ACA) on April 19 at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton.
The initial focus of the pilot program is to provide Alberta employers with recruitment support to hire Albertans rather than use the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) for a period of 24 months.
In particular, the service will support employers who are looking for high-skilled workers in sectors with higher rates of unemployment.
"The program adds another layer into the process and our members see value in the added clarity with the new policy," said Chris Ambrozic, senior vice-chair of the ACA.
"We recognize the fact that we need to hire Albertans first. Through the help of the Alberta government, the service will help contractors attract workers to their projects."
Ambrozic said the pilot represents the status quo because it adds compliance to the TFWP by creating a new "Refusal to Process" list, which includes 29 high-wage occupations that have a sufficient local labour supply. A large share of these occupations are involved in the construction industry, including civil and mechanical engineers, welders, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, heavy equipment operators, millwrights and industrial mechanics.
Employers effected by the list will be provided with a direct phone and email contact for Alberta Labour, where they will receive enhanced services to fill the specific occupations with local workers.
Previously, an employer requesting TFWs in these occupations would go through the Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) process, which is supposed to ensure there are no negative impacts on the domestic labour market.
Both Fraleigh and Ambrozic agree the Alberta government should restrict access to TFWs because local workers were hit hard by recession and unemployment.
The decline of oil prices in mid-2014 caused a significant deterioration of conditions in the Alberta labour market. The 2016 Alberta Labour Market Review reports that total employment in Alberta in 2016 fell by 37,300 to roughly 2.3 million, compared to 2015.
Alberta's unemployment rate jumped to 8.1 per cent in 2016, from 6.0 per cent in 2015.
Monthly labour force statistics show Alberta's unemployment rate reached a peak of 9.0 per cent in November 2016, which was the highest rate since July 1994.
Construction employment declined by 10,900 workers in November 2016.
According to Employment and Social Development Canada, there were 10,232 TFWs who were imported to Alberta in 2016 on positive LMIAs. There were 1,334 TFWs hired by the construction industry.
Given these labour market conditions, the potential benefits of this program on the construction industry are not so clear. Fraleigh is not aware of any current problems with Alberta building trades hiring TFWs, while Ambrozic said employers are not having any problems finding local workers.
However, others argue the new initiative will have a significant impact on the labour force in Alberta.
"I am proud of the leadership displayed by the Alberta government in developing this pilot program which will help qualified Albertans currently seeking work with accessing good jobs," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, in a press release. "It will also stop the practice of TFWs being used to undercut wages and it will encourage employers, especially in construction, to put a renewed focus on apprenticeships and training."
Minister of Workforce Development and Labour Patty Hajdu said the results of the pilot program will be monitored closely to see how it can be extended to the rest of the country.
The success of the pilot will be determined by the extent to which the liaison services are used by employers and the number of Albertans and Canadians who are matched with available jobs.