by Ian Munro
Stompin’ Tom Connors once wrote a song about Newfoundlanders Margo and Reggie, who loaded Margo’s cargo onto Reggie’s rig and hit the road for Toronto. If Margo needed to ship her cargo today, though, it might get no further than Moncton, because New Brunswick firms cannot find enough Reggies.
Fortunately, the Member of Parliament for Tobique-Mactaquac, Mike Allen, is seeking to amend immigration rules so as to make it easier for New Brunswick trucking firms to hire drivers from overseas, and for their spouses to find work there.
Here is the problem: to be a long-haul trucker you need real skills. Don’t kid yourself, your local convenience clerk doesn’t have the skills to jump behind the wheel any time soon, nor does your local doctor or lawyer. Nevertheless, long-haul truckers are recognized as unskilled workers, not as professionals.
It gets better. Canada needs these “unskilled” workers to come and fill jobs that residents either cannot or do not wish to fill. But, because the work is “unskilled”, it will, absent a special intervention, take a long time for a worker to gain permission to even enter the country.
Facing this shortage, we sweeten the pot by telling them that once they do get permission to come, their family members will not be allowed to contribute to or fully integrate into their new country by, say, taking a job themselves.
This insanity must be stopped for several reasons.
A first and obvious reason is that we want firms to be able to hire the workers they need. If a company cannot find enough truckers, then trucks sit idle, goods do not get shipped, revenues and profits are foregone, and growth opportunities are reduced. This is not the way to produce strong companies and a more robust economy.
At a more general level, New Brunswick, like the rest of Atlantic Canada, needs more immigrants. To date we have fared poorly in attracting and keeping immigrants and our population is in decline. Furthermore, the proportion of retirees in the population is increasing, while the proportion of working age people – whose tax dollars fund our social services – is going down. So we have higher bills for health care and other social services and fewer people to pay them.
While not a cure-all, increased immigration will help to alleviate these pressures.
The attention being paid to the spouses of the needed truck drivers is a very welcome development. The prosperous country that we enjoy today was built in large part on immigrants who, in purely economic terms, filled our labour needs, but who also recognized the benefits and opportunities that abound in this country, settled here, raised families, and truly became Canadians.
The value of making it easier for these spouses to take jobs is clear and demonstrable. They feel better about themselves and their adopted country, they feel welcomed. By being contributing members of the workforce they can improve their language skills and integrate more fully into their new community.
We also must recognize the benefits in terms of the transportation industry specifically. Atlantic Canada is next door to the massive economic engines of central Canada and the northeastern United States. We are superbly placed to grow as a conduit between these regions and the rest of the world via our ports on the Atlantic coast. We also are a thinly populated region with a small internal market. Trade is our lifeblood, and to succeed in trade we need the very best in transportation infrastructure. Having trucks sitting idle in parking lots due to a shortage of drivers does not fit the bill on this score.
There also is educational value in having this issue raised. As more people learn that New Brunswick firms cannot find the workers they need, public perception will move from the incorrect belief that Atlantic Canada is and always will be awash with surplus labour to a realization that finding and keeping workers is the most serious public policy problem we face in the coming years. The sooner we all understand this challenge, the more effectively we will be able to address it.
For those who currently are underemployed, or for younger people who soon will join the workforce, learning that companies are begging for skilled workers in very specialized trades – and the trucking field is just one example as industry generally involves a myriad of such specialized trades – may prompt them to seek the training that will lead to a solid career.
Last week’s Cabinet shuffle resulted in a new Minister of Immigration, Diane Finley. Let us hope that like any new employee, Ms. Finley will wish to start her new job on the right foot and remove these inefficient barriers to attracting and fully integrating new Canadians.
Ian Munro is Director of Research with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a non-partisan pulibc policy think tank in Halifax, NS.