March/April 2008

HR Outlook

Free movement of human capital

By V. Sanchez

Labour mobility in the context of the Canadian mining

Recent Canadian trends show a movement of human capital from east to west. Alberta is one of three provinces/territories showing a positive net migration in 2006; British Columbia is a distant second.

There are two major categories of labour mobility:

  • Geographical mobility — workers moving across physical space1
  • Occupational mobility — workers moving across sets of jobs1

Geographical mobility is not as great an issue across provincial borders as it is across international borders. This can be seen in the case of Alberta, where many of its workers come from outside the province. Of the 3,500 people that Suncor Energy employs in Fort McMurray, approximately two-thirds are from outside the province.2

Occupational mobility has become a subject of increasing discussion in the face of a labour crunch currently experienced by various sectors in Canada. The ability to move labour from industries in decline to those that are growing may be one of the solutions to the labour crisis. Occupational labour mobility is needed in a free-market economy.

Workers may experience barriers to movement because of various factors such as experience and skill requirements, professional and occupational regulations, as well as policy barriers. Several attempts have been made to lower these obstacles such as those
made by the Red Seal Trades Apprenticeship Program, the Agreement on Internal Trade, and the Trade, Investment, and Labour Mobility Agreement between Alberta and British Columbia.2,3 Still, labour mobility barriers remain.

There are no designated Red Seal Trades that are mining-specific.4 Workers transferring from operations in one province to another possess no nationally recognized credential certifying that they have the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to enter the new workplace. The lack of a national credential has two compounding effects: 1) workers at closing operations become unemployed or underemployed; and 2) new operations or existing operations in other regions face challenges in filling all their vacancies in spite of existing labour pools at mine closures.

Removing barriers to occupational labour mobility through a national credential for miners would shorten the period of displacement for workers. For industries in decline, workers may find themselves unemployed or underemployed even though many of their skills may transfer to other industries. The forestry industry is in a period of steady decline, and many of its workers have transferable skills that may be effectively utilized in other industries, and in the mining sector in particular, but the proper systems are not in place to facilitate their movement.

The removal of barriers to labour mobility will not solve the HR crisis in mining but is part of the solution. Industry has recognized the need for geographical mobility. It is estimated that 12,000 people are either temporary workers or commuters to Fort McMurray.2 Employers are providing workers the ability to commute or work temporarily in remote areas.

Industry stakeholders have also begun to work together to address the issue of occupational labour mobility through an integrated strategy. Two initiatives managed by MiHR and led by industry seek to address workforce development, including mobility. The first is the development of National Occupational Standards for the Mining Industry that will serve as the basis for the development of a national credentialing system. The other is building a labour market information system that can provide stakeholders with up-to-date information on workforce patterns, labour supply and labour demand. Labour pools are available, so let’s figure out how to access them. The time to bring down barriers to the free movement of labour is now.


1 Ferrie, J. L. (n.d.). Labour Mobility . Retrieved January 16, 2008, from Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History:

2 Pereira, A., Shinewald, B., Wise, B., Yates, S., & Young, R. (2007, June 14). Moving in the Right Direction? Labour Mobility, Labour Shortage and Canada’s Human Potential. Retrieved January 16, 2007, from Canadian Policy Research Networks:

3 TILMA may also be expanding to include other provinces to further address trade barriers between provinces.

4 The Interprovincial Red Seal Program (2004, Septempber 29). Designated Red Seal Trades. Retrieved January 16, 2008, from The Interprovincial Red Seal Program:

Veronica Sanchez is the project manager of the Mining Industry Human Resources Council.

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