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U.S., Canada look to ease flow of skilled workers across border

by Ilene Grossman ~ February 2015 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Moving workers across the United States’ northern border can be a challenge, one that interferes with a person’s ability to obtain a temporary job and can impact business operations as well. But both the United States and Canada are taking steps to fix this problem, with the dual goals of easing skills shortages in certain economic sectors and giving unemployed workers more options.
In early January, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that it plans to implement a “known employer” pilot program later this year. The program would allow U.S. employers that meet certain standards to use a streamlined process to bring in workers from Canada on a temporary basis.
This would reduce business costs for obtaining temporary visas, as well as shorten the time needed to get them. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the United States, Canada and Mexico already have a temporary visa program for professionals. However, this status is given at the border, not in advance, at the discretion of the immigration official.
“Officials hate making these decisions at the border,” says Laura Dawson, a trade consultant based in Ottawa. By moving the decision-making process away from the border, she adds, the known-employer program “would be almost like a pre-inspection for skills.”
Professionals currently allowed in under the NAFTA program include lawyers, accountants, scientists, physicians, architects and others who generally require some kind of professional licensure. Some Canadian provinces are facing worker shortages, especially in the skilled trades. Canadian organizations such as the Conference Board of Canada have said that American workers have the skills needed to fill these temporary positions.
However, it is often difficult and time-consuming for these workers to obtain the necessary visas. This is partly because there is no uniform certification system for most skilled trades, and training and experience are not recognized across the border.
In Canada, an interprovincial “Red Seal Program” confirms skills for recognition between jurisdictions. The Canadian Council of CEOs recently called for standardization of training requirements across North America, making it simpler for workers to take temporary jobs in other jurisdictions.
In 2012, acute shortages of skilled workers in the energy sector led the province of Alberta to enter into a unique agreement with the Canadian government. Under the pact, the normal, cumbersome process for bringing in temporary foreign workers can be bypassed, and individuals whose jobs end would not have to return to their home country if a similar job were available.
In the first year of the Occupation-Specific Pilot Project, nearly 1,000 skilled U.S. workers started jobs in Alberta, including steam/pipe-fitters, heavy-duty equipment mechanics, ironworkers and welders.
Since the U.S. and Canada do not have a way to verify training and credentials in the skilled trades, Alberta developed a program to evaluate foreign credentials and determine their equivalency to its own requirements.

 

Article written by Ilene Grossman, CSG Midwest staff liaison for the Midwestern Legislative Conference Midwest-Canada Relations Committee.