Plenty of Jobs in
Out West, the signs all
say: Help Wanted
Mar 30, 2008
Central Canada may be bracing for a recession but there's still no sign
of it in the West. Instead, employers worry about finding and keeping enough workers to deal with
soaring demand for their products and services.
Frustration abounds everywhere. The owner of one upscale Calgary restaurant says
he has not only had to resort to washing the dishes himself, he's now thinking of buying two
condos to house the temporary help he wants to import from the Philippines.
June, Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier will lead a team of city officials to job fairs in England
where they hope to hire 250 planners, mechanics and bus drivers. Like the restaurant workers,
they would be brought to Alberta under the temporary foreign worker program, which allows
outsiders to work in Canada for a limited period of time, if employers can't find suitable
Canadian or permanent residents to do the job.
Temporary workers from India, China, the Philippines, Central America and Mexico
are also in demand at the massive tar sands sites in northern Alberta. In fact, it's the tar
sands vortex that is sucking up workers from all across the country, as well as overseas,
leaving other employers in the lurch because they can't compete with petroleum industry
So, foreign workers, who for the most part aren't as demanding as their Canadian
counterparts, are recruited to fill the gaps in everything from meat-packing and landscaping to
hotels and restaurants. Over the past year, the federal government has received applications
from Alberta employers for 100,000 foreign workers. That's about five times the number of
immigrants granted permanent status in Alberta in 2006.
B.C. is also importing workers. According to Economic Development Minister Colin
Hansen, the province is hoping to attract 30,000 workers with specific skills – each
course, not everyone is happy about this. Labour leaders say employers are using foreign workers
to drive down wages and benefits. Recruiters know that while $14 an hour to change sheets in a
hotel might not sound like much here, to a single mother from Mexico it sounds like a fortune.
New immigrants say employers would rather bring in temporary foreign workers than hire them
because they expect wages and benefits befitting a Canadian standard of
Not all job vacancies can be filled by foreign workers who don't speak English
very well. They can't work in retail, for example, where employee churn is a constant
During a recent excursion to Safeway, I had to ask three workers stocking shelves
for help before I found the item I was looking for – the first two simply didn't know what I was
talking about. Some restaurants and stores have had to curtail their hours of operation because
they can't find enough staff.
But it's in the social-services sector where the shortage of qualified workers is
felt most acutely. Agencies in Alberta that provide services to children and adults with
disabilities say employee turnover is so chronic it has become dangerous for clients and
Most of these agencies contract with the provincial government to provide
services. So, the government could certainly inject more cash, if it wanted to. But agencies
like these, as well as long-term care facilities, child-care providers and women's shelters,
will be scrambling for front-line workers for many years to come.
They might even be praying for a recession – anything to drive prospective
workers their way again.
Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of
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