Skilled tradespeople who want to immigrate to Canada will be getting a separate, streamlined program later this year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says.

"We are facing huge and growing labour shortages in Canada, particularly here in the West and in Alberta," Kenney said at a construction site in Calgary Tuesday.

"To be honest, our immigration programs haven't been effective in addressing a lot of those shortages. Our immigration programs have become rigid and slow and passive."

The current federal skilled worker program assesses applicants on a 100-point grid, with a pass mark of 67. The grid takes into account the candidate's official language ability, education, work experience, age, whether they have a job offer in Canada and their overall adaptability, according to a news release from Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

The grid favoured professionals rather than workers in the skilled trades, who make up only three per cent of entrants to Canada under the federal skilled worker program. The program has a backlog of 280,000 applicants, leading the government to propose refunding the $400 fee to those who applied prior to Feb. 27, 2008, and now want to withdraw their applications.

Kenney said there will be tens of billions of dollars in new construction in Alberta in the next 10 years, with the country facing huge gaps in skilled workers for the same time period.

"There really is virtually no meaningful access to Canada for skilled tradespeople to come here as immigrants, as permanent residents, and make a lasting contribution to our economy," he said.

Kenney said an updated skilled worker program will be unveiled later in 2012. It is expected to include a separate stream for skilled tradespeople, including those in construction, transportation, manufacturing and the service industry.

More emphasis on practical training

The proposed program would let skilled tradespersons be assessed "based on criteria geared towards their reality, putting more emphasis on practical training and work experience rather than formal education," the news release said.

The news was well-received by employers with projects in the West, where the energy and construction sectors are sucking up workers faster than Canada can produce them.

The Canadian vice-president of human resources for CH2M Hill, a global infrastructure and energy company, said Tuesday's announcement shows the government is aware of the challenges businesses face.

"At CH2M Hill, we make it a priority to hire qualified Canadians. We've got aggressive recruiting programs across Canada, but sometimes our needs in certain sectors simply outstrip our supply of various skilled labour categories and other types of workers," David Larter said.

CH2M Hill now employs about 2,000 people in hundreds of projects across Canada.

Larter said his company hopes to double staff in Canada in the coming years — but he adds that won't be possible if immigrants aren't part of the equation.

With a file from Louise Elliott