A string of Canadian employers yesterday returned to Belfast offering promises of plentiful work to hard-up tradesmen and engineers.
A year on from its previous visit, a jobs fair was held at the Europa yesterday at which the British Columbia Construction Association (BCCA) renewed its efforts to find Ulstermen and women willing to cross the Atlantic to work.
This year there were more employers than last, with a ground-floor section dealing with IT and other jobs, including a handful in New Zealand and Australia, and an enlarged upstairs section with about 30 construction employers manning stands – roughly double the number last year.
Abigail Fulton, vice-president of the BCCA, said: “We came back because of how successful we were last year, basically.
“Fame for the Irish craftworker has grown. People hired last time have to work for British Columbia, and the employers were impressed.”
This time around, the fair also had employers from the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta too – both also in west Canada.
“That’s where all the work is,” she said. “We’ve a lot of resource projects; oil pipelines and infrastructure. It’s all industrial commercial work and it’s only just beginning.”
She feels a “crunch” is coming in the next few years with demand for labour out-stripping supply.
“We’re experiencing shortages now,” she said.
“But they’re going to be critical shortages in the coming years.”
While she was speaking to this reporter a string of jobhunters, some Northern Irish, some not, were steadily handing over their CVs – joiners, scaffolders, civil engineers.
She said she hoped for “a few thousand” to come along during the one-day event.
Those the News Letter spoke to gave a clear indication of why they were looking so far afield.
Daniel Crawford, a 21-year-old from Belfast, said that he had trained since age 17 to be a joiner, and qualified last year. But although he had been doing shop-fitting work for £1,600 a month, it had not lasted and he was now working for a hardware retailer.
Asked why he was looking at Canada, he said: “It’s better living – better than Northern Ireland anyway. There’s nothing over here for tradesmen.”
The workers he deals with day-to-day tell him “there’s nothing out there, and they’re going out of their trade”.
Asked if he would miss his family if he made it to Canada, he pointed to the man next to him at the fair and said: “Well, this is my cousin!”
Aged 18, builder Curtis Moorhead was also interested in heading to Canada.
“I just want to go to experience something different,” he said.
There were tales of jobs woe from some of those attending the fair yesterday, who lamented the fact the recession had given them little chance to use the skills they had worked hard to get.
One of them was Kris Brown, 22 and from Bangor, who said: “Literally, there’s no work here.
“I went to tech to study for four years to be a joiner, went to work for three companies, and they all closed down.
“They just said (about Canada) there’s job opportunities out there, and the money is fantastic.”
However, Canada’s gain would be Ulster’s loss.
At last year’s fair, held in the Hilton, one CEO had acknowledged to the News Letter that there is a perception Canada is “basically stealing” the valuable workers which have been educated and trained in Northern Ireland.
And yesterday that view was put to Daniel Crawford, one of the young men eyeing up Canada as a probable job destination.
His response to it was simple.
“My own opinion is, if Canada is willing to provide more opportunities, I’m just going for it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Abigail Fulton, who was speaking for the British Columbia Construction Association, said: “At least they’re working, they’re making money, and they can come back when they economy picks up” – adding that going to Canada is not a “life sentence”.
She also said that the labour market for construction is now more of a global one, and that continuing to train skilled apprentices was one of the best things Britain or Ireland could do.
“My advice to any country, not that they’re going to listen to me, is don’t lose that,” she said.