Foreign worker program considered long-sighted 

Service Canada, PNP say Olympics, future demographics will stretch labour

The elusive long view is never so intangible as in times like these. Hard slogs often make for foggy futures, especially when it comes to government.

And yet, federal and provincial bureaucrats swung through Squamish last week and offered just that: a view for the future, however optimistic, of a post-recession era, when jobs are once again plentiful and employees few. Hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, representatives of Service Canada and the British Columbia Provincial Nominees Program (PNP) introduced the country's foreign worker's program to members of the local business community, who attended in slim numbers.

"I think we should've done this a while back," said Michael Chew, director of strategic operations with PNP. "I know if six months ago we were doing this session, this room would be full. That said, we have to think long term. We can't just sit back and wait for things to turn around without planning."

But the global economy has been sloughing off jobs like so many sheets of dead skin, with tens of thousands lost just last month. Overall, 295,000 Canadian jobs have been lost since last October. Provincially, the unemployment rate sits at 6.7 per cent. Perhaps with that in mind, the program was described as a last resort - even by those promoting it.

At the same time, Chew and federal colleague Greg Anstruther, business expertise consultant with Service Canada, framed the 2010 Olympics as an enviable cushion for the region, one that could well require additional labour. Anstruther also pointed to a study examining the country's birth and death rates, figures he said point to a labour shortage in 2012.

"The only actual growth in our labour market will come from foreign workers," he said.

Further, while sectors like manufacturing are seriously ailing, the health care industry is "gangbusters." He also said there are workers unwilling to migrate from one sector to another, despite retraining programs offered by the government.

The process to employ a foreign worker is multi-pronged, and Anstruther strived to rid it of the sorts of rumours that can spark nationalist intolerance. First off, all foreign employees will benefit from the same labour code provisions as citizens. He also used a hypothetical: Suppose an employee from Germany had come under the auspices of the program and found work in construction; though no one really saw it coming, that employee would've been the first to get laid off when the recession began.

While foreign workers are privy to return flight packages - whereas a resident of St. John's moving to Victoria is not - the idea is to keep an individual from listing into the underground economy, or worse, in the event of a lost job.

Employers looking for foreign workers have to post their openings on a federal job board, which the government says offers the same notice to Canadians as anyone else. Meanwhile, government bodies check workers for things like criminality and security risks.

In the event a foreign worker is strongly desired, then employers can turn to Chew's department, which recommends candidates for an expedited run at the federal screening process.

"What makes your community stronger is having new people moving to your community to set up new businesses and work," said Chew. "But important for your role is retention. How do you make this a welcoming community?"

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