An all-hands-on-deck approach needed if Western Canada is to maintain its advantage as a destination for global talent

Michael SangsterAfter years of high unemployment and economic uncertainty, driven by low commodity prices and the pandemic, economies across Western Canada are once again picking up steam – and facing severe labour shortages.

Governments have committed to finding fixes, but a ready-made solution right in front of them isn’t getting the notice it deserves: industry-driven skills training provided by regulated career colleges.

As major trainers of mature workers, women and recent immigrants, Canada’s 450 regulated career colleges train more than 150,000 learners who go on to ease critical labour gaps across the country after graduation. Our direct training-to-employment pipeline provides learners and their families opportunities for advancement, while responding to our country’s diverse labour force and economic needs.

In Western Canada, NACC members like Robertson College in Edmonton and hundreds of others train thousands of learners each year, graduating skilled workers directly into the local economy as healthcare professionals, skilled labourers, truck drivers, graphic artists and beyond.

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Despite these successes, Western Canadian industries still face a severe shortfall of workers, putting investment – and economic growth – at risk. There are several reasons for this. Many people laid off during the pandemic have decided to try their hand at new careers, leaving industries like tourism and hospitality short on their traditional workforce. Canada’s aging population also plays an outsized role as baby boomers move into retirement. In fact, a British Columbia business professor fears it will take years to alleviate the severe labour shortage these factors are causing.

Western Canadian provinces know the critical role upskilling workers will play in confronting this challenge. In Alberta, the Minister of Advanced Education’s mandate letter specifically tasks him with enabling private career colleges to expand enrolment and practicum opportunities in areas where the province is experiencing worker shortages. NACC members are ready to help fulfill these mandates.

Traditional four-year post-secondary degree programs used to set you up for a lifelong career in your desired field, but that is no longer the reality for many Western Canadians. Following several years of economic uncertainty, major industries like oil and gas have dramatically downsized the needed workforce, investing heavily in efficiency and automation. These displaced workers still have a tremendous base of knowledge and are looking for flexible, industry-driven ways to upskill and find opportunities in other areas of the economy.

In addition to upskilling and retraining Canadians to better suit the labour market demands of today, Western Canadian provinces also need to be able to attract, train and retain international learners who want to work and make their homes here. NACC members can play a crucial role in the recruitment and retention of these workers.

The federal government has announced ambitious immigration targets, with 465,000 people due to arrive in 2023, and a goal of 500,000 people in 2025. In Alberta, the provincial government wants to see a significant increase in the number of immigrants it can accept under the provincial nominee program and create new opportunities for individual companies to directly recruit workers. What we need now are innovative policies to ensure every newcomer cannot just quickly succeed but become a long-term solution to Canada’s labour needs.

Provincial governments have long acknowledged that with increased competition for skilled labour, the potential to transition international students into permanent residents is crucial. Our industry is eager to work with the federal and provincial governments to ensure regulated career colleges qualify for the post-graduate work permit (PGWP) program, which provides a path to residency for recent international graduates of Canadian institutions.

It is imperative to take an all-hands-on-deck approach between every level of government, workforce developers, and employers so Western Canada can maintain its advantage as a destination for global talent.

In the coming weeks, regulated career colleges plan to work closely with federal ministers Sean Fraser, Gudie Hutchings and Randy Boissonnault, among others, as well as premiers David Edy, Danielle Smith, Scott Moe and Heather Stefanson, to help solve the labour crisis in Western Canada. Industry, small business owners and residents should expect their elected leaders at all levels of government to reciprocate the effort so we can find new solutions, together.

Michael Sangster is the CEO of the National Association of Career Colleges (NACC).

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