At the heart of Alberta’s economy is the energy sector. This heavy focus on natural resources and industry makes Canada almost unique among highly developed nations and means that our labour challenges are very different from those of our G8 peers. 

Following the metaphor a little further, skilled labourers and tradesmen are the lifeblood of the Canadian workforce, and anything that threatens them is like a disease of the blood. 

Without unions, everyone suffers

According to the report On the Job: Why Unions Matter by the Parkland Institute, unions provide a major positive force on the marketplace. Union wages in Alberta are, on average, $4.75 higher than non-union wages and, further, it has been shown that this disparity puts an upward pressure on those non-union wages, lifting all ships. Similarly, unionization provides vital oversight in the realm of workplace safety. Official records showed 145 fatalities and 27,745 serious workplace injuries in Alberta in just one year. One benefit of a union is providing workers with the security to insist on their right to safer workplaces. And yet unionization rates in Alberta are the lowest of any province in Canada.

“Skilled labourers and tradesmen are the lifeblood of the Canadian workforce.”

One contributor to this is an increased reliance on foreign temporary workers to augment or, worse, replace domestic labour. “Unfortunately,” says Robert Blakely, Chief Operating Officer at Building Trades of Canada, “it’s still the case that some companies will look and think ‘if I can just import the cheapest labour possible, I’ll hire twice as many people and not worry if they’re properly trained.’ That’s not good for Canadian workers and it’s certainly not good for Canadian industry.”

How some foreign labour grows jobs

That is not to say that foreign temporary workers are universally a bad thing for Canada. Blakely is quick to point out that there is a skilled labour gap in Canada, especially in Alberta, and that foreign journeymen can provide an invaluable resource for bridging that gap. 

“The journeymen you have in the United States, for example,” says Blakely, “they have the same skills, they have worked for many of the same companies that we work for up here. That’s one of the best uses of foreign temporary workers. If you have a trade with a two-to-one ratio for journeymen to apprentices, say, then every two journeymen you bring up from the States, you can pair them with a young guy or gal up here and create another Canadian skilled worker for the future.”

Other initiatives to narrow the labour gap in the Canadian workforce include trade winds to success, which helps aboriginal youth find a career in the trades, and helmets to hardhats, which helps returning members of the Canadian Forces enter a skilled trade profession.

A massive opportunity for growth

The opportunity is absolutely there for Canadian workers in the skilled trades. As the baby boomer generation, who are heavily represented in trade unions, begin to retire, countless positions are opening up from the top to the bottom of the career ladder. Roughly 25 percent of Alberta’s construction workforce is expected to retire over the next six to seven years, and that number will be as much at 35 to 40 percent in supervisory and management positions. We neted to replace those people from within Canada, rather than importing them. We need to ensure that the people who are building plants today will be around next year to maintain them, will be around in the future to shut them down. That’s a homegrown unionized workforce, and that means investment in Canada’s industrial heartland.