Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Is Canada's perpetual shortage of skilled labour real, perceived or conjured up for the purposes of creating a glut? In the case of engineers, the latter would certainly seem to be the case. We have been graduating thousands more engineers than needed when considered in the context of the deliberate import of engineers from the rest of the world, mainly developing world. Many are driving taxis, including Canadians, and many Canadian engineers who aren't have left for the United States because the glut has driven down wages here. My nephew graduated from four years of training in marine engineering three years ago. He has spent half the time since working as a non-union construction labourer and the other half in the Coast Guard for about $25 per hour, or as much money as an inexperienced painter. Only now has he secured a tenuous position in the company he was aiming to work for.

I was in my local drugstore today telling one pharmacy assistant about Bill Gates' latest scam. The H-1B visa program has allowed him and other technology companies to hire IT workers from India, China and similar locales on a two-three year contract in such numbers as to drive down the wage levels of Americans in the industry. People who are trained to earn $100,000 a year are earning $60,000 a year and many who hit 40 find themselves without a job. One of them, Gene Nelson, who graduated with a Phd in 1979 in computer engineering, is now having to file for personal bankruptcy.

But this isn't enough for Gates and his colleagues in the industry. Currently there is a cap on H-1B visas and he wants it raised to the sky. Why? Because there is a "shortage" of skilled labour in the field. If this were the case, which it isn't, that would be easily remedied. Gates and others could create a "longage" of salaries to attract more IT graduates. He himself has admitted that IT salaries have not kept pace with inflation. But instead he has run to Congress demanding changes to H-1B. When he didn't get it, what did he do?

He went to Vancouver to announce the creation of a Microsoft plant in Richmond where IT workers from India and China and elsewhere could be hired by the bushel under Canada's "Temporary Workers Visa". Good old Canada, no caps there. Gates can and will hire a surplus of these bargain basement brains----none from Canada no doubt-----for one devious reason. Under the North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA) these "temporary workers" will simply be able to take a car trip through American Customs and be in Microsoft headquarters in two hours. So much for the H-1B "cap".

It was at this point the Pharmacist injected. Colleen had been working long hours six days a week year after year unassisted in her store. She explained that she had tried many times to find another pharmacist to help her, but no one would reply to her advertisements because pharmacists in Vancouver and across the province were working similar hours to hers. That was because, she said, there was a shortfall of 600 pharmacists nationally and 300 in BC. "How did this come to pass?" I asked. "It began with the tuition freeze imposed by the Provincial BC NDP government on colleges and universities in the 1990s." (Presumably emulated by other governments as well). The freeze was a sop thrown to its working class constituency that on the face of it was positive because it made post-secondary education more affordable to lower-income students. However, by depriving the educational institutions of revenue, it forced them to cut back the construction of labs or the acquisition of equipment for training, the number of instructors hired, the number of courses offered and the number of placements available. "The result was fewer students graduated in pharmacology."

Colleen pointed out that Ontario and a few other provinces were now trying to close the gap by training more students. It is not simply a matter of making tuiton affordable but investing more money in the whole training system. In the meantime though, she said, immigrant pharmacists are a welcome relief.

Her attitude was shared by area residents last year when a petition made its rounds to demand that the federal government allow a South African doctor to stay in the country. Doctors are in extremely short supply in the hinterland. Some people simply can't find a General Practitioner. And South African doctors have the reputation of being the very best, even if their bedside manner is brusque. But here is the irony. After the effective public lobby, the doctor won his stay in Canada, and then pulled up stakes and moved to a more urbanized setting. As long as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of movement, how then can immigration ever solve shortages of this kind, when medicare fee structures prevent monetary incentives from being offered to hold personnel.?

We are caught in a vicious cycle. Immigrant-driven population growth drives economic growth (eg.demand for housing, construction materials, roads, automobiles etc). And economic growth in turn creates labour shortages, which beg for immigration to fill them because its a quicker, cheaper fix than long-term educational investment. The public, meanwhile, not only demand the quick fix for the very real shortfalls they see, but buy into the mythology that immigration must always be the answer for these chronic problems. And of course, no thought is ever given to the idea of putting our economic and social needs within a framework of ecological sustainability. Along with, "How many pharamicists and doctors do we need to import?" should be questions like, "Should we poach them from developing countries?", and more importantly, "How many immigrants, how many people, can the environment of this country sustain?"

Canada is a sugar-addict. Needing energy (skilled labour), we reach for a candy bar (immigration) and wolf it down. Within minutes, we not only feel relief but hyperactivity. But soon the insulin kicks in, and we crash, either into a recession or another severe shortage of labour (sugar). Ingest another candy bar and the cycle continues. Anything to keep the immigration rush going. From 16 million people in 1950 to 33 million people today in 2008. Unless we break this addiction to growth, our health will break. We must stabilize ourselves and shed some demographic weight.

We have our work cut out for us.

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