How temporary foreign workers are changing the face of BC’s rural economy

Temporary foreign workers, who made up a small share of BC’s labour force  just 10 years ago, are emerging as a large and permanent part of the province’s economy.

Even more significant is their growing importance in BC’s rural economy, where agricultural workers were once the only temporary players in local job markets.

Not any more, as I explain in this column for the July 26 issue of Business in Vancouver:

BC’s temporary foreign workers, a group once dominated by live-in caregivers and agricultural workers, are not only taking more skilled jobs, they are becoming into a growing and permanent feature of BC’s work force.

Once focused on low-paid jobs that Canadians were unwilling to do, the TFW Program is now delivering highly-skilled workers in large numbers to employers right across the province.

The stock of foreign workers — the total number of TFWs in BC at any given time — now sits at around 70,000, nearly equivalent to the entire population of Prince George.

Don’t expect that number to decline, even in a recession.

A new report by the BC Business Council highlights the staggering increase in TFWs in this province since 2002, their greater job diversity and their rising importance to small-town BC’s economy.

Once second-tier players in the use of TFWs, BC employers are recruiting a growing share of all Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada, increasing the number of TFWs in the province by 250 percent since 2002.

Even more significantly, says the Business Council, about 27,000 or 40 percent of these workers are employed outside major metropolitan centres in small town BC.

All these changes raise complex questions for provincial and municipal governments, as well as non-profit organizations serving immigrant communities.

How should a community plan its housing needs? Will these workers bring spouses and children that require school services? What’s the impact on police, health and social services when several hundred TFWs join a regional workforce?

These are very real issues in Prairie communities like Brooks, Alta., where nearly a quarter of the population is made up of TFWs and refugees, from dozens of countries, employed at a local meat plant.

As Ottawa eases restrictions on the program and extends the length of time TFWs can stay, the stock of foreign workers will continue to grow.

Even during the 2008 downturn, the number of workers in the program levelled off, but did not drop.

Unlike immigrants, who overwhelmingly settle in larger centres, where support services and extended immigrant communities already exist, TFWs must go where the boss has the job.

More of these jobs are outside the Lower Mainland and more require higher skills.

And the public sector, not just the private sector, is becoming more reliant on TFW employees.

A full 27 percent of all TFWs are considered managerial, professional or skilled. A surprising 650 registered nurses are in BC working under the program and more than 600 university professors.

In both cases, it could be argued, BC is poaching the skilled professionals so desperately needed by developing economies to avoid the cost of recruiting and training our own residents. Professors and nurses, after all, are not low-paid. Surely there are Canadian residents ready to step into these jobs.

The largest single TFW category, of course, remains Skill Level C, where 8.052 nannies and babysitters have been imported, for a while at least, to take care of our very young and very old.

“Notwithstanding the existence of some overall labour market slack,” BCBC concludes, “we are already seeing indications that some regional labour markets are tight and certain occupations are in high demand.”

With regional labour shortages expected to intensify in coming years, the Business Council says, it is “clear that managers, health care workers (including nurses), trades people and engineers, among other occupations, will be in short supply.”

The dramatic increase in TFWs, in other words, is the new normal. That may be good news for employers. The consequences for the workers and their host communities are not so clear.