bernadette head only for newsletter-resized-600The Canadian labour shortage in specialized skills has been a pressing concern for some time now. Employers are constantly on the lookout for people with the right skills to fill essential positions in major industries. On the other hand, the unemployment rate stands at 7.4% as of June 2011. Unemployed and underemployed Canadians are seeking full-time jobs, with new immigrants eager to join the labour force as well. So what gives?

Besides recent graduates, Canadians who find themselves in between jobs or considering second careers are in search for more rewarding or challenging professions. Human Resources and Skills Development Canada provides educational assistance to help people obtain the training they need to make a career transition.

On the immigration front, there’s a steady stream of internationally trained professionals applying for job vacancies in their fields of specialization. Some factors delay their employment, such as lack of Canadian work experience, the language barrier, cultural differences, a valid skills assessment, and a lengthy process toward certification of credentials. The government, in collaboration with the nonprofit and private sectors, have programs in place to help overcome these obstacles.

However, these interventions may not be sufficient to resolve the issues of underemployment and skilled labour shortage. It’s a matter of finding the right fit between demand and supply. One practical solution to bridge the gap and streamline the employment process is skills transfer.

Skills transfer toward gainful employment in highly specialized occupations can be achieved in several steps:

  • Objective assessment of education and skills. Using a skills evaluation framework, candidates’ knowledge and skills sets from their education and/or prior work experiences can be compared or matched with the knowledge and skills required for specific occupations. This is the first step toward granting due recognition to the relevant education and/or identifying competencies that can be “transferred” over to similar or related occupations.
  • Targeted skills development. After skills gaps are identified, individuals can take supplementary courses in areas that they lack or need upgrading to obtain all the expected skills and qualify for particular occupations.
  • On-the-job training. This provides opportunities for direct application of skills that individuals already possess or have newly acquired. They will gain a local, realistic work experience practicing these skills in an actual Canadian work setting.
  • Trade certification or profession accreditation. After meeting all the requirements, candidates will be fully certified practitioners in their chosen occupations.

Some Canadian sector councils in various industries are taking the skills transfer route for recruitment, training and retention of their workforce. An excellent example is BioTalent Canada, a nonprofit organization at the forefront of promoting biotechnology skills development. I have had the privilege of working with BioTalent Canada on several projects that involve developing occupational skills profiles and skills transferability from nonbiotechnology to biotechnology functions. A critical sector in the Canadian economy, biotechnology comprises a diverse range of industries. Bio-economy encompasses not only biosciences but also agriculture, aquaculture, forestry, natural resources, food processing, environment, industrial and other subsectors.

In response to the growing demand for biotechnology occupations, the industry has set its sights on attracting the international talent pool to join the ranks of the bio-economy labour sector. For more information, see BioTalent Canada’s 2007 report, Recognizing Talent: Capitalizing on the Skills of Foreign-Trained Professionals for a Vital Bio-Economy. Among its projects is the BioSkills Transfer Tool, which helps individuals determine which of their skills gained from prior work experience in other industries can be utilized in biotechnology. Other sectors can adopt this skills capture-and-transfer model to tap into the influx of expertise that newcomers bring to Canada.

For its part, the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada leads ongoing programs to address the industry’s skills shortage through capacity building and retention of its workforce. Current projects involve diversification of its labour pool, employment of immigrants, educational alignment strategy, educational partnership, increasing the talent toolkit, petroleum competency program, and workforce development.

The Construction Sector Council is also making headway in building up its labour force using a variety of tools, training programs, labour market information and other services for employers and job seekers. An eLearning Centre, training standards, courses, and other resources are available on its website. The council also actively supports the recruitment of visible minorities such as aboriginal people, women, and immigrant and temporary foreign workers.

Perhaps other industries can follow suit in taking up these initiatives. Among existing alternatives, skills transfer offers a promising potential in meeting the skilled labour shortage in terms of practical solutions, tangible results and reasonable turnaround time.