Filipino Linemen Fill Calgary Jobs

Filipino linemen fill Calgary jobs

Desperate firm 'thinking outside the box'

Norma Greenaway
CanWest News Service
Monday, November 12, 2007

OTTAWA – Joe Marshall had reached the end of his rope.

He had travelled far and wide in Canada in search of skilled tradesmen for the Calgary power company he managed, pumped tens of thousands of dollars into advertising, and hired a headhunting firm only to come up empty in his quest to hire the skilled bodies the company desperately needed to build, maintain and operate power lines.

ENMAX Power Corp., which distributes electricity to Calgary residences and businesses, had been around for more than 100 years, and never before had it encountered such a problem hiring new talent. The company was getting increasingly nervous, knowing it could lose one-quarter of its 250-strong force of linemen to retirement over the next five to 10 years. It also was fighting a losing battle to lure workers to a city where the high cost of living, especially the cost of housing, was a turnoff.

“We were brainstorming all the time, trying to think what can we do,” Mr. Marshall said. “We were advertising across the country, advertising in Toronto where it cost $40,000 for a weekend ad.”

That was thousands of foreign kilometres ago, and before Mr. Marshall and senior company executives decided to act on a suggestion — offered by a Filipino lineman working in the United States who had seen the company's ad on the Internet — to tap into the pool of skilled labour in the Philippines.

Today, eight Filipinos, all certified power linemen in their home country, are settling into their new homes in Calgary under the Temporary Foreign Worker program. They arrived last Thursday after accepting job offers Mr. Marshall, ENMAX's manager of electrical work, made in Manila last February where he and Shannon Robinson, his colleague from human resources, interviewed 66 applicants.

Getting their eight new hires to Canada was not fast, and took months longer than expected to go through the medical clearance hoops and to get the work permits.

“We had all the paper work done by the end of May, and then five months went by and we were just waiting and waiting and waiting,” said Ms. Robinson. “It was extremely frustrating.”

But Mr. Marshall and Ms. Robinson are confident the new linemen, who used the long wait to work on their English language skills in the Philippines, will work out.

The company has organized orientation sessions, arranged for housing, and will help prepare the newcomers for a provincial certification exam they must pass within a year. If all goes well, Mr. Marshall said, the company has offered to sponsor them, and their immediate families still in the Philippines, for residency in Canada.

“We're really thinking outside the box,” declared Ms. Robinson, who, along with Mr. Marshall, was in Ottawa for a conference, sponsored by the Electricity Sector Council, on how to integrate internationally trained new Canadians into the industry.

ENMAX is neither the first, nor will it be the last company forced to recruit overseas in a bid to navigate specific labour shortages across the country, shortages that are predicted to grow as aging baby boomers begin retiring en masse.

The robust economies of Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. are feeling the biggest pinch, but other provinces too are struggling with shortages of everything from tradesmen and construction workers to engineers, doctors and nurses.

The federal government, working with the provinces and businesses, has taken several steps to make it easier to bring people to Canada under the Foreign Workers Program if no residents of Canada are available to fill the position. There were almost 172,000 temporary foreign workers in 2006, an increase of 122% over 10 years.

Responding to pleas from businesses in Alberta and B.C., Ottawa now has listed 12 occupations, ranging from carpenters and crane operators to registered nurses and food counter attendants, as eligible for fast-track approval for hiring of foreign workers. It also has earmarked $50-million for this year and next to reduce processing delays and to more effectively respond to regional shortages.

National Post 2007