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Amid worker shortage, business groups call on Ottawa to expand jobs programs in pre-election budget

Amid worker shortage, business groups call on Ottawa to expand jobs programs in pre-election budget
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OTTAWA — As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to face political upheaval over his desire to protect Canadian workers, business groups have also focused their efforts on jobs — or rather, a lack of people to fill them.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau already hinted back in February that the Mar. 19 budget would focus on skills and training, which he said would help Canadians “feel more optimistic about the future.” The theme touches on deepening anxieties in the Canadian workforce, both for workers and the companies looking to hire them, as the global economy undergoes a rapid technological shift.

Recent data suggest Canada’s economy could be cooling off, but several years of strong economic growth have still pushed unemployment to record-low levels, making it increasingly expensive for firms to hire new workers. In its most recent survey of businesses, the Bank of Canada said that 43 per cent more firms reported an intense labour shortage than those who did not.

Even amid international trade wars and competitiveness concerns in Canada, hiring remains a top concern for businesses of all sizes — a worry that Morneau could seize upon in his crucial pre-election budget.

“There’s just not a lot of people available for work, and that’s putting a lot of pressure on employers,” said Dan Kelly, head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

Lobby groups are in turn looking to Ottawa to ease the shortage.

The Business Council of Canada and Council of Canadian Innovators, for example, are calling on Ottawa to extend the so-called “Global Talent Stream,” a specific section under the temporary foreign worker program introduced in June 2017. The current program was meant to run 24 months, but many business groups want to see it extended.

Supporters of the program say it has significantly reduced the time it takes for companies to bring in new workers from outside Canada, from 12 months down to around four. Canadian companies like Toronto-based Wave and Winnipeg-based SkipTheDishes Restaurant Services are among the firms that have used the program.

“It’s been one of the few pillars of success for this government on the innovation economy,” said Ben Bergen, executive director of CCI.

There’s just not a lot of people available for work, and that’s putting a lot of pressure on employers

The tech industry anticipates it could have as much as 220,000 unfilled positions by 2021 due to a shortage of high-skilled labour, Bergen said.

Ottawa last week said it would extend its Atlantic Immigration Pilot (AIP), a program aimed bolstering the availability of foreign workers in the oil and gas sector, healthcare and other sectors. Atlantic Canada and Quebec have been among the hardest-hit by the labour gap in recent years.

Trevin Stratton, chief economist at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said small businesses have called the AIP “very successful” in getting workers to site.

“We see this as a model that could be extended to other regions of the country,” he said.

The chamber is also calling on Ottawa to introduce programs aimed at helping middle-aged people upgrade their skills partway through their careers, in turn helping them adapt to changes in the workplace. Advancements in technology and automation have spurred fresh worries over job security in recent years, particularly in traditional industries like manufacturing.

“Canadians are anxious about the effects of technological change on their jobs and careers,” said Goldy Hyder, CEO of the Business Council of Canada, in a letter to Morneau ahead of the 2019 budget.

Some groups have put forward recommendations to expand the Student Work Placement Program, which helps find jobs for students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau will present the 2019 federal budget on Tuesday, March 19. Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz

Worker shortages are particularly acute in the manufacturing and construction industries, which have seen a wave of retirements in recent years with too few young people to fill the gap.

The Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters said recruitment is the single-biggest challenge for its members, with 70 per cent of manufacturers struggling to find skilled workers.

The association said it expects the hiring challenges to worsen with time, and is calling on Ottawa to make the Canada Job Grant permanent, as well as widen eligibility for on-site training programs. The grant funds training efforts through Employment and Social Development Canada.

In its pre-budget submission to the Finance Department, the Canadian Construction Association said the industry will lose an estimated 247,900 workers between 2017 and 2026. Based on projections for new hires, the industry will be left with a shortfall of 32,200 workers, the group said in its pre-budget submission.

The association called on Ottawa to increase the value of its Annual Apprenticeship Job Creation Tax Credit (AJCTC), and expand training programs in STEM.

In addition to skills and training, the pre-election budget next week could also focus on housing prices and access to prescription drugs, observers say.

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