Canada lacks the data to make informed decisions on temporary foreign workers

The federal government has not collected precise information about job vacancies for decades, according to a report

After a decision to no longer count job postings from free online classifieds, the federal government dropped its estimate of job vacancies in Canada. The new figure is a vacancy rate of 1.5 percent, down from the four percent cited in the 2014 budget in February.

It throws yet more confusion into ongoing debates about Canada’s temporary-foreign-worker program, as discussed in today’s Globe and Mail.

Why - one might ask - do we need temporary foreign workers if we have so few vacant jobs?

Well, it’s not quite so simple. A big problem is that the new estimate isn’t very reliable either. We simply don’t know enough about how many job vacancies we're facing and where. And in order to design a good temporary-foreign-worker program, we need that info.

That’s the conclusion of the C.D. Howe report released in April. Author Dominique Gross, an economist and professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University, writes that “The federal government has not collected precise information about vacancies for decades.”

Gross argues that temporary-foreign-worker programs can be good for the economy when they help fill short-term labour demand quickly, but not if they discourage employers from hiring domestic workers in the long term.

In other words, it makes sense to bring in temporary foreign workers to, say, help build a big resource project in a community suffering from a skills shortage. But no one should be using the program to replace the regular workforce in a communities with high unemployment.

Getting the right outcome requires careful tweaking, which involves knowing a lot more than we do now about job vacancies. Gross argues that adding a question or two in one of Statistics Canada’s regular economic surveys would give policy makers a lot more to work with.

Peter Severinson is the Research Director at Resource Works Society. 

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