Canada’s immigration system is not delivering the waves of new Canadians who gravitate towards construction as first jobs, Ontario skilled trades advocates say, so it’s time to reform the system.

A background paper prepared by the Ontario Skilled Trades Alliance (OSTA) states while immigrants make up 24 per cent of the national labour force, only 18 per cent are in construction. Despite having sought-after skill sets, foreign construction workers are ranked low within the immigration system, the OSTA charged.

A recent Summit on Workforce Development convened by the OSTA issued a list of resolutions calling for government policy reform and now the alliance and its partners are working through more specific details on those issues as a group.

OSTA chair Patrick McManus explained that historically the construction industry in the province has relied on immigration to fill a significant percentage of its ranks.

“New immigrants to the province have played a critical role in building this province over the decades,” he said. “But beginning in the mid-‘90s, the immigration system changed to value educational attainment and language requirements over specific, practical skill sets.”

A big part of the problem is Canada’s National Occupational Classification (NOC) system for prioritizing immigrants, McManus said. Construction workers, managers and professionals are in different job groups from Skill Type 0 to Skill Levels A to D. Architects are in Level A, carpenters and electricians in B and construction labourers in D.

Most of the infrastructure and residential trades fall under Skill Levels C and D.

“We need to have a better sense of what skills are in critical demand in the country and province based on regional employment demands,” said McManus. “In construction, this would mean paying attention to retirement data, municipal capital investment plans, provincial investment plans and new residential and commercial building permits.

“In many respects we have to rewind the clock and look at how we used to do this in decades past to see if there is a way to marry the old model with our new priorities.”

Many of the jobs that are in critical demand do not require certification or a particular level of educational attainment, the OSTA stated.

The in-demand jobs in infrastructure and residential construction are not prioritized in Canada’s express entry system, and the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program (OINP) is onerous and expensive for smaller companies to participate in, said the OSTA.

Ontario’s Express Entry Skilled Trades Stream is one of several streams designated in the OINP. Ontario’s Minister of Labour has the ability to designate what skill sets are in demand in the province for a portion of the 9,000 seats within the OINP but the OSTA wants to see that number greatly increased so that people that have in-demand skill sets that currently fall outside of the current prioritized requirements are able to access the system.

The Jan. 6 summit called for a doubling of the cap under the OINP, and for an allocation of 20 per cent of the 9,000 seats within OINP for NOC Level C and D immigrants who meet critical labour markets needs across the province.

The Labourers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) and the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) have also called for doubling the OINP cap.

“Under this program, Ontario should emphasize attracting voluntary tradespeople such as truck drivers and general labourers,” said PCA Ontario director of public affairs Stephen Hamilton. “That will help provide more immediate relief to companies that are struggling to find workers to complete projects.”

LIUNA director of strategic partnerships Victoria Mancinelli noted the Labourers are working with the Canadian Labour Congress, which has initiated a partnership with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to implement a temporary program to help 500 out-of-status construction workers and their immediate families find a pathway to permanent residence.

The OSTA symposium also passed a resolution calling for the federal government to increase the cap on temporary foreign workers from 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the workforce at companies building public infrastructure projects and housing, with a particular focus on small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Canada’s Building Trades Unions executive director Sean Strickland noted the CBTU is working with its U.S. counterpart the NABTU to ease cross-border travel for unionized construction workers.

“Currently, the process for bringing in Canadian and American workers into each respective country is a lengthy and burdensome process,” he stated. “Streamlining cross-border movement for members of unionized construction would help mitigate labour supply concerns by providing project owners with a highly specialized workforce that can meet Canadian safety standards and complete projects with the highest of quality.”

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