Opinion: Embracing superwork can help solve Canada’s labor shortage

Todd Clyde is the CEO of Blue Branch, an organization that helps Canadian employers find skilled workers.

Canada has a housing crisis that the federal budget tries to solve, but there is a giant hole in the middle of the plan: the workers.

The federal budget, released last week, offers important solutions to a complex housing affordability crisis – getting municipalities to change their zoning and permitting systems, spend more on affordable housing and ban buyers foreigners for the next two years. These are important steps, but they can only succeed if Canada solves our labor crisis first.

Ontario’s Housing Affordability Task Force wants the province to build 1.5 million new homes over the next 10 years. But who will build them? There are those who blamed COVID-19 stimulus spending for the inability to find workers, but the truth is that a regional and unsuitable workforce was a problem long before the pandemic.

Ontario’s construction industry alone reported 13,000 job vacancies in 2019. Imagine how many homes could have been built if skilled workers had been available. What if I told you that they were here in Canada all along, but not in the right place at the right time?

In 2019, more than 12,000 skilled workers lost their jobs in Alberta, but these workers weren’t connected to work opportunities that matched their unique abilities. Yes, getting to Ontario from Alberta is quite a journey, but this type of labor mobility – or superwork as some are now calling it – is nothing new. For years, it was only normal for thousands of workers from Atlantic Canada, where unemployment was high, to fly to northern Alberta to work in the oil sands.

In recent years, the demand for labor in Canada has shifted towards the manufacturing and construction sectors in rural Ontario. Based on our research, Blue Branch predicts that as governments and the market adapt to a disrupted global supply chain by investing in domestic manufacturing and regional development, superwork will help address the shortage labor. Now is the time to find innovative labor mobility solutions that connect workers from regions of Canada experiencing high unemployment with jobs in regions experiencing labor shortages. This is how we can keep our talents and their positive economic impact in Canada.

The federal budget included a nod in this direction. The new Labor Mobility Deduction for eligible tradespeople and apprentices would provide tax recognition for up to $4,000 per year in eligible travel and temporary relocation expenses. It’s a start, but it will take a lot more to solve this problem.

When done correctly, super work is only temporary. The goal can and should be to get a skilled workforce to see themselves as part of their new community and help them settle there permanently. This contributes to the retention of domestic companies, as access to labor helps prevent companies from relocating. It also improves worker health and safety by reducing labor shortages, which can lead to exhausted workers working overtime to meet production targets, risking workplace injuries. And at the macro level, more people in jobs increase our GDP.

Our research shows that up to 32% of unemployed Canadians are willing to do a great job or move to another province for work. They just need help overcoming the obstacles, including housing and transportation, to get there.

And this is where the housing crisis and the jobs crisis are getting worse. You can’t build more houses without more work. But to get more manpower, they need housing. In the regions where we operate, Airbnbs and underutilized serviced apartments are in high demand for our mobile workforce. The local economy benefits from the rents as workers build new homes and settle in a new community. We also help facilitate local transportation through ride-sharing programs to get incoming workers to and from their jobs.

Ultimately, to get people to do great work, the conditions have to be right. They need housing and transportation, and the ability to see themselves as part of the community to which they are moving. The government can and must do more to encourage Canadians to move within the country to fill labor shortages. In the meantime, we’re filling the gap by helping match skilled workers with jobs where labor shortages are preventing growth.

The federal budget accurately identifies a housing affordability crisis in Canada, but underlies an unequal labor crisis that deserves greater government attention. Superjobs will be an important tool to meet the changing talent needs of employers, and homebuilders in particular, if Liberal budget commitments are successful.

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