Change Canadian immigration policy to attract skilled workers

Why can't we hire unemployed European workers to help Canada's mines prosper?

A miner uses a machine to excavate copper ore at the drilling face at the Polkowice-Sieroszowice copper mine, operated by KGHM Polska Miedz SA, in Polkowice, Poland. (Photo: Bartek Sadowski/Bloomberg/Getty)

Canada is rightly perceived as an emerging natural-resource superpower, with the sector generating upwards of 11% of our GDP. Mining alone accounts for almost $9.7 billion in capital spending, according to the Mining Association of Canada. That’s why we should all be concerned when study after study declares the lack of skilled workers one of the biggest threats to our future competitiveness.

The issue isn’t limited to natural resources—labour shortages are poised to affect high-tech, construction and other drivers of growth, too. Ottawa appears to recognize the problem’s magnitude and is floating some creative policy solutions. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney recently suggested giving employers a more active role in the immigration process by having them identify applicants who could be expedited through the system to f ill immediate openings. But the government needs to move fast.

It is well known in mining circles that there is a chronic deficit of skilled and professional workers, as well as a significant projected shortfall in semi-skilled and other labour required to grow the industry. More than 100,000 workers will be needed over the next 10 years to staff planned projects and counter attrition due to retirement. Considering the industry’s workforce today stands at just over 200,000, the shortfall will be vast. The only way to manage a human resources crisis this acute is to pursue a two-track strategy.

Short term, the Canadian government needs to help labour move more freely to where it is needed, targeting countries where skilled workers reside and fast-tracking immigrants with the qualifications we need. For example, South Africa has a large mining sector that is currently beset by infrastructure problems, creating a pool of idle workers. Similarly, high unemployment in the EU means suitable candidates could be found there. Targeted funding to upgrade these workers’ skills and language capabilities once they’ve landed would further help close the gap. Many mining companies lack the expertise and local insights necessary to identify and recruit these workers, which is why a co-ordinated government and industry partnership is required.

Often overlooked in these discussions is the fiercely global nature of competition for skilled workers. Many mines are located in remote areas and in countries that lack strong education systems. The operators must, therefore, import almost all the staff necessary to build their projects. In Hudbay’s case, we are competing to attract candidates from the same pool of people to both our Constancia project in Peru, and to our operations in northern Manitoba. Moreover, we are directly competing with the oilsands for skilled trades like electricians and machinists.

Longer term, Canada must increase the number of skilled workers trained here. But let’s be clear: this is a generational change, one that will not meet the immediate need. We must vigorously pursue both shortand long-term strategies. A significant portion of Canada’s economic well-being will depend on how well we succeed.

David Garofalo is the President and CEO of Hudbay Minerals Inc.