A shortage of skilled workers is the biggest challenge many Canadian businesses face today, Employment Minister Jason Kenney told a skills summit Wednesday, warning it could also jeopardize Canada's economic development in the future.
The problem would continue to grow as the population ages, Kenney told the one-day conference, which brought together stakeholders to discuss the labour market, employee training and those under-represented in the labour force.
Currently 30 per cent of the skilled trade workers in Canada are baby boomers, Kenney said, adding that they will soon retire.
"They are going to take with them a lifetime of knowledge and skill," he said.
It's necessary that an "informed national discussion" take place about the condition of Canada's labour market, in order to address future skills gaps, Kenney said.
"We can acknowledge that we have inadequate labour market information and we need to do a fundamentally better job of getting granular information by region and industry," he said.
Skilled workers shortages are looming in specific sectors, he added, but it's not a market-wide issue. The construction, mining and petroleum sectors are examples of industries that will face serious shortages of skilled workers over the next decade, he said.
Skills Canada, a group that promotes careers in skilled trades and technologies to Canadian youth, has estimated that one million skilled trade workers will be needed by 2020, Kenney pointed out.
"We know we have these huge investments and opportunities, particularly in a huge swath of northern Canada, through the massive multibillion-dollar investments in the extractive industries that will require tens if not hundreds of thousands of skilled workers who are not currently available," Kenney said.
Low-skilled foreign workers
Two justice activists disrupted Kenney as he began to speak at a news conference wrapping up the summit in an effort to draw attention to the plight of low-skilled foreign workers.
Syed Hussan and David Moffette, two members from the Toronto branch of the grassroots organization No One Is Illegal, interrupted Kenney shortly after he began speaking following the conclusion of a one-day skills summit, organized by his department on the heels of recently announced changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
Hussan interrupted the minister just 30 seconds after he began to speak. He expressed his frustration with the live-in caregiver program — one of many streams that make up the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
"Your decisions cannot be allowed to continue. What you're doing to the live-in caregiver program in specific. We need full immigration status, not deportation," the protester was heard shouting as he was escorted out of the room Wednesday.
Kenney said he would be happy to take questions at the end of the news conference.
Less than a minute later, Moffette who spoke in in French interrupted Kenney to express his disapproval with the overhaul to the program, calling the changes "unacceptable."
The group took responsibility for the protest in a written statement, saying the overhaul to the TFWP will deny temporary foreign workers permanent immigration status.
Under the revised program, employers will only be able to hire temporary foreign workers for two years instead of the previous four.
Hussan blamed Kenney, who oversaw many of his government's policy changes as immigration minister, for what he said was "the exclusion of refugees, parents, grandparents and spouses from permanent status in Canada."
"He's entrenched a revolving door immigration system where migrants in low-skilled occupations come to the country, are exploited and then kicked out and replaced."
Hussan was seen on video entering the room and taking a seat next to Moffette seconds before the minister walked to the podium.
The two justice activists sat in the third row.
The government said last week that it is currently reviewing the live-in caregiver program with reforms expected to be announced some some time in the fall.
The program is meant to allow families to hire a foreign live-in caregiver or nanny when Canadian citizens and permanent residents are not available.
Kenney told reporters one of the problems is that it has morphed into an extended family reunification program.
"A very significant number of the participants in that program apparently were actually coming to work, ostensibly for relatives – somewhere around half of the participants."
Kenney said that has given way to an increase in the number of applications and longer wait times.
While the live-in caregiver program was exempt from some of the major changes announced to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program last week, anyone applying to bring in a caregiver or nanny will have to pay a new application fee of $1,000 per worker requested.
Manuela Gruber Hersch, president of the Association of Caregiver & Nanny Agencies Canada, told CBC News the fee "will affect families' ability to hire."
"It is a clear attack against hard-working Canadian families," Hersch wrote in an email.
Kenney defends overhaul
The minister has spent the last few days defending major changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program against criticism from business groups that are unhappy with the government's plan to cap the number of low-wage workers they can hire.
In an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Kenney said he considered scrapping the low-skilled stream of the program right away, but decided to phase it out instead.
Kenney said the government would take another look at the low-wage stream of the program in 2016 and decide then whether it should be scrapped altogether.
Today's skills summit brought together business leaders, economists, and public policy experts together to discuss whether there is a shortages of skills in Canada and how labour market data could be improved.