Canada Looks to Lure Away Skilled U.S. Workers

By Meera Louis

May 16, 2013

Paul Thomas could hardly believe it when a Canadian recruiter called about a position as a mechanic in British Columbia. His annual income had dropped to $40,000 a year from $100,000 as business slowed at the Atlanta car dealership where he worked. He’d filed for bankruptcy, and his house was in foreclosure when the headhunter saw his résumé online.

“My wife and I were excited,” says the 45-year-old. “Auto mechanics don’t get approached by recruiters, so it was sort of nice being catered to.”

The headhunter sent Thomas online videos about the heavy-truck dealership that wanted to hire him, and his prospective employer flew him in for four days for a fuller picture of life in Prince George. Last March the company hired him under an immigration program for skilled workers. Scoring the job, which pays about $90,000 a year and comes with government-provided health care, seemed like “I scratched a lottery ticket,” says Thomas. Within a month he had a work permit.

Canada has a high rate of unemployment—12.3 percent in some regions. It also has tens of thousands of open jobs nationwide for plumbers, electricians, and other skilled workers. Employers have a hard time getting potential hires to go where the work is. “Canadians just aren’t willing to leave their provinces,” says Kathleen Kischer, who recruited Thomas. So companies, particularly in Western Canada, are tapping headhunters to (MWW), LinkedIn (LNKD), and even Craigslist in search of Americans and other foreigners with the right résumés—a task made easier by the national government.

This past winter it launched a fast-track immigration program for 43 trades, promising to process work papers within 12 months for applicants who speak English or French and have two years’ experience in their field.

Among the most wanted: ironworkers, welders, oil and gas well drillers, and heavy-duty equipment mechanics. “We always point out to Canadians that even though there are too many unemployed Canadians, there are also too many unfilled jobs,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said during a speech in April.

Canada is opening the door to Americans at the same time the U.S. Congress is battling over whether to let in more skilled workers. In Canada last year, 160,617 immigrants were granted permanent residency because of the economic value they brought, while 64,901 became residents via family ties, according to the government. In the U.S., with a population about nine times as big as Canada’s, 680,799 immigrants became residents through family sponsorships in fiscal 2012, and only 143,998 obtained residency based on their employment, federal data show.

It can take a decade for an employed immigrant to get a U.S. green card; in Canada a skilled worker can obtain permanent residency within 18 months, says Richard Kurland, an immigration lawyer in Vancouver. Foreigners can also apply for residency on their own, without an employer’s help—another big difference from the U.S. Word of the perks has spread all over the world. In 2011 the U.S. was only the fourth-largest source of immigrants to Canada, behind the Philippines, China, and India.

Kael Campbell, a headhunter in Victoria, says Canadians are benefiting from the influx of foreigners. “The hiring of one American John Deere (DE) or Caterpillar (CAT)mechanic with 10 years of experience can result in the direct employment of eight to nine Canadians” that are less skilled, Campbell says. His firm landed jobs in the mining and equipment industries for 30 immigrants last year, up from 18 in 2011.

Going north solved Thomas’s financial problems. His wife is now a cashier at a Costco (COST). They’ve made friends. “Home will always be the States,” says Thomas. That won’t stop the couple from applying for permanent residency in their new country. “Canada was my saving grace,” he says. “I believe I will stay here for a while.”

The bottom line: Canada gives preference for visas to immigrants who’ll add to its economy—a contrast with the U.S., where family ties trump employment.