CALGARY - Ottawa is mulling ways to tap into the U.S. labour force as worker shortages loom on our side of the border, the federal immigration minister said Friday.

"We're at a preliminary point of examining ways that we could do a better job of accessing unemployed American labour," Jason Kenney told a business audience in Calgary -- a city all-too familiar with worker shortages, especially in the oil and gas sector.

"There are a number of policy things that we're considering. I don't want to go into too much detail...We think, particularly in the energy industry, that may be a significant solution to some of the emerging labour market shortages."

The U.S. unemployment rate was just over nine per cent in August, whereas in Alberta -- where a renewal in oilsands development may soon lead to another bout of labour tightness -- the unemployment rate was only 5.6 per cent.

There are "a lot of skilled tradespeople in the U.S. who could walk straight into productive jobs here. We should see if there's something we can do in the rules to facilitate having those unemployed Americans contribute to our economy," Kenney said.

There are provisions under the North American Free Trade Agreement that enable workers to move easily between countries. But the number of those visas granted each year is capped, and only apply to certain types of occupations, Kenney said.

"It's a very good model, but it's very limited," Kenney said.

"We, as a government, have begun thinking about how we could perhaps expand that model."

Kenney also announced Friday that consultations are set to take place in Calgary next month on the federal Temporary Foreign Worker program, which he admits has been "maligned and misunderstood" by its critics.

The program enables companies to bring workers to Canada from around the world on a temporary basis, so long as they can prove they can't get the labour closer to home.

Some 185,000 such workers came to Canada last year, 58,000 of whom ended up in Alberta. Critics of the program argue workers who come to Canada under the program are often exploited.

In his remarks to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Kenney took aim at those accusations.

"They paint this picture of some sort of Industrial Revolution sweatshop or something that these people are coming to. Let me say, that most of the critiques of the Temporary Foreign Worker program are ridiculous, unfounded," Kenney said.

"When I meet temporary workers across Alberta, they say to me that they're able to earn in this province in a couple of days what it would take them a month to earn back in their country of origin. And that, for them, represents over a year or two a life savings to start a new business, to build a new home."