By 2020, Canada will be short one million skilled workers.
“That’s dire,” said Canadian Chamber of Commerce chair Sean Finn.
During his keynote speech at the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce luncheon and annual general meeting on Tuesday, Finn blamed the current worker shortage on Canada’s shoddy immigration laws and provincial and territorial labour restrictions.
There are buildings going up downtown Ottawa that need drywall, and there’s a shortage of skilled workers, he said.
“Then across the river in Gatineau, Quebec, there are plenty of drywallers waving and wanting to work.
“But they aren’t able to cross the border and work in Ontario.”
Canada needs to do away with constraints that prevent mobility between provinces, he said, citing problems faced by teachers.
“You can be taught how to be a teacher in Manitoba,” he said.
“But you can’t teach in the Northwest Territories — that is absurd.
“Teaching is teaching anywhere across Canada.”
To solve the labour shortage two things need to change, said Finn.
“We need to facilitate the influx of immigrants to Canada, by accelerating their treatment through embassies.
“And when they get here, we need to get them certified to carry on their professions and occupations in other provinces in a quicker and more efficient fashion.”
Everybody knows about the neurosurgeons who end up driving cabs in downtown Toronto and Montreal, he added.
But bringing in workers from Outside is not the only way to solve the territory’s labour shortage, said Grand Chief Andy Carvill, who attended the luncheon.
“The (chamber) speakers were talking about bringing Outside workers in and training them, and these are the types of initiatives that various companies and chambers are looking at,” said Carvill.
“That may help in some cases, but I would rather try and move our own people in the region through the workforce.”
The First Nations population is one of the fastest growing in Canada, he said.
“And there is a large workforce here that could be trained, instead of relying on bringing in workers from outside the territory and Canada.”
In the spring, Whitehorse chamber president Rick Karp met with Carvill and other chiefs during their leadership meeting.
“And we had some in-depth discussion with respect to looking at innovative ways in which First Nations can become more involved,” said Carvill.
The big thing is training, he said.
“Just look at the Yukon and the lack of capacity we have in the communities. We need more people to start training in these areas to help with governance.”
There is also a wide range of training possibilities in the trades, said Carvill, citing carpentry, plumbing and the health field.
“We just need to start getting more involved,” he said.
“There’s not much of a problem finding the people. It’s just getting them the training they require and just getting the word out there — communication is very important.
“And we need to work with local businesses and find out where the shortages are and what the needs are.”
But before more First Nations enter the skilled workforce, the Yukon government needs to meet its promises, said Carvill.
“Government is not representative of what was established in the treaties,” he said.
“There’s a certain amount of First Nations people who are supposed to be working in public sectors in government and it’s not there.
“I’ve worked with this government, and past governments, and it’s very difficult to get them to move on getting more people to start training.”
Even First Nations people with the proper skill set and training often have trouble getting jobs with the territorial government, he said.
The Council of Yukon First Nations has been invited to join the Whitehorse chamber, and it makes sense to work together, said Carvill.
“We are still looking at what types of networking we can do,” he said.
“And at this point it seems to make a lot of sense, and it would be beneficial for us to join.”
The Canadian chamber is working to bring more First Nations in to the labour force, said Karp.
“We are trying with things like (the Aboriginal Workforce Participation Initiative),” he said.
“We’ve not been as successful as we would have liked. It’s a slow process, but we’re working on it.”
Addressing the labour shortage is a top priority across Canada, said Finn, who’s been attending chamber meetings across the country.
“The Canadian chamber must show leadership,” he said.
“It needs to come forward with its own solutions and hold the government accountable to address the issue.
“And I don’t want any more studies — I want action.”
The labour shortage is more acute in areas where the population is smaller, he added.
Piers McDonald, whose company Northern Vision Development was awarded business of the year at the luncheon, has felt the labour pinch.
“We’ve had some tight spots this summer in terms of getting rooms cleaned and getting things done on time,” he said.
“The availability of skilled workers, really at any price, is a bit of a challenge.”
Despite the worker shortage, McDonald has faith in the Whitehorse economy.
In the past 14 months, Northern Vision purchased the Gold Rush Inn, The High Country Inn, and is developing 47 serviced lots in Marwell area, as well as land behind Boston Pizza and in Shipyards Park.
“We have a lot of confidence in the future of the economy and are building confidence amongst our peers,” said McDonald.
“We are amongst the businesses that are showing that this is a great place to invest and one can make a good return on their investment here.”
The booming oil sands in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan are drawing workers south, added McDonald.
But living in “a raw and expensive” community like Fort McMurray doesn’t compare to the standard of living in Whitehorse, he said.
“People are happier in Whitehorse — it is a great standard of living and people learn that very quickly.”
However, the shortage remains one of McDonald’s bigger worries.
“All businesses run with people,” he said.
“They are not about buildings and land — they’re about the people who run the business and invest in the business.
“We are only as good as the team we can pull together.”