There are more than 100,000 unfilled jobs in the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, and thousands more in Saskatchewan and British Columbia, according to a Canadian official who visited the Idaho Legislature as part of a delegation from the Pacific Northwest Economic Region.
PNWER is a public-private partnership that includes five states and five Canadian provinces. It works for regional and binational cooperation, particularly on economic development and environmental issues.
If a PNWER effort gets off the ground, Idaho workers could have a crack at some of those jobs. Lyle Stewart, minister of agriculture for Saskatchewan and president of PNWER, says the idea is to find skilled American workers - particularly targeting returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan - to head to the oil sands for temporary work.
Because of recent regulatory changes in Canada, Stewart says, "A U.S. worker can work temporarily in Canada for up to four years."
PNWER has launched a pilot project, first targeting the Puget Sound area, where there's a large pool of unemployed skilled workers. Canadian companies have been recruiting there.
"There will be follow-up to that," he says. "Depending on the success of that, we foresee that it will spread to other jurisdictions, specifically Idaho."
The jobs are for heavy equipment operators, welders, steamfitters, pipe fitters, electricians, construction trades and more.
Matt Morrison, PNWER executive director, says part of the idea is to capitalize on skills U.S. and Canadian soldiers developed working side by side in Afghanistan. Congress has been receptive to recognizing those standardized skill sets, but Canadian approval still is pending.
The workforce is just one of an array of projects the cross-border group is working on this year. The group made presentations to several legislative committees, including one focused on transportation, because huge amounts of Canadian products move through Idaho on their way to the West Coast.
The group also highlighted ongoing work on border-crossing, trade, energy and other issues.
Says Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, outgoing vice president of the group: "It's surprising the amount of economic benefit that is derived to Idaho because of our relationship and purchase and sale of goods across the border."