HUNDREDS attended a jobs fair yesterday aimed at luring workers away from the Province with the promise of jobs abroad.
The British Columbia Construction Association held its first event in Belfast to woo hard-pressed tradesmen with employment in the western Canadian territory.
Dozens of builders and engineers were given presentations on how to emigrate to Canada, which is seeing a boom in these sectors – but a shortfall of workers to fill the jobs, including an estimated 20,000 in the construction sector in the immediate term.
The event at the Hilton Hotel was part of a roadshow touring the island of Ireland and Scotland.
Among those addressing the almost entirely male audience, who came from across the Province to hand in CVs, was Michael Chew, representing Canada’s ministry of jobs, tourism and skills training.
He said: “Our numbers that we crunch, no matter how we crunch them, show with our declining birth rate we’re going to be short 300,000 bodies between now and 2020.”
He said it would be “Ireland and the UK’s loss” to see skilled workers go, but added: “Unfortunately from the perspective of the jobseeker they need to go and find where the jobs are.
“I’m sure if Irish people and people from the UK had a choice they’d rather not move.”
One of those recruiting on the day was Mike Johnston, CEO of Metro Testing Labs.
“Just from this morning’s session I’ve found three people I’ll continue tonight and tomorrow to have further discussions with,” he said.
“In Dublin and Cork I’ve 10 people I’m seriously considering giving job offers to.”
Asked about the skills drain on Ulster, he said: “Certainly there’s that perception – that Belfast and Ireland trained these people, put them through education and we’re basically coming along and stealing them.”
But by reducing unemployment benefits it could even be a good thing, said the 52-year-old, originally from west Belfast.
“One less mouth to feed,” he said. “One less person to worry about. There’s certainly the opportunity to come over now and fill a little niche in the market. They may stay, they may not stay.”
Shaun O’Connor, a 26-year-old from Londonderry, said: “I’m a joiner since I left school. My last full-time job was in December 2008.
“(Things) aren’t better at all. They haven’t improved since 2008. The dole queues are getting longer.”
Asked if he was bothered about making the trip, he said no, adding: “My brother is already over there.”
Istvan Demek, a fabricator welder from Carrickfergus, was one of the many hundreds recently caught up in the mass redundancies at FG Wilson.
“I’m just keeping my options open,” he said.
“Seeing what it has to offer. And why not? Canada’s a nice country, apparently.
“Mate, I’m 38 – I should have done it years ago. I just think there’s better money out there.
“I could go out, make more money, pay my mortgage off and come back again. But you don’t know what life will throw at you.”
Jerome Mullen, the Warrenpoint-based Polish consul to Northern Ireland, helped waves of Polish coming to Ulster in the years of our own economic boom.
He said: “It’s obviously the reverse of what’s been happening here in terms of immigrants coming to Northern Ireland.
“I’m old enough to remember many other decades in our history with the same trend.
“Back in the 60s and 70s when we were struggling and our economy was not in a great shape, people just went where the work was.”
Abigail Fulton, vice-president of the British Columbia Construction Association, said: “We only have 30 million people and most of our country is still wilderness.
“All kinds of minerals, timber – you name it, we’ve still got it.”
She added: “People in the US aren’t willing to travel to Canada. They think it’s a third world country.”
By contrast Ireland’s skilled labour force has a “working abroad mentality”.
Joe Sloan, a 27-year-old joiner from Newcastle, had been planning to leave for Australia anyway, but wanted to see what Canada had to offer.
“I’m not decided. It could be all down to this today,” he said.
“I’m ok. I’m ticking over, but there’s nothing major happening. I’d like something more stable. I want to build stuff like this hotel – high-rise commercial buildings instead of bungalows.”
Vincent Caulfield, a 53-year-old plasterer and foreman from Armoy, who left Ireland to work when he was 14, warned young jobseekers that working overseas could be tough.
“See young kids?” he said. “There’s some of them won’t last three weeks, because they can’t live with people. They have to be prepared to live in portacabins. It’s not all sunshine.”