A new federal program aims to fill the demand for tradespeople in Canada while fast tracking the immigration process for certain skilled workers.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced the Federal Skilled Trades Program on Monday, which could see up to 3,000 applications from foreign workers in its first year.

“With all the huge construction projects going on and oil and gas projects…we’re talking tens of thousands of unfilled jobs, quite frankly because our high schools and our community colleges have not been producing enough tradespeople for these jobs,” Kenney told CTV’s Power Play on Monday.

The program takes effect on Jan. 2, 2013 and Kenney expects the number of eligible applicants to grow over time. Those who qualify for the program will be given permanent residency.

Kenney said that over the last 30 to 40 years, immigration policies have made it close to impossible for skilled labours from abroad to enter the Canadian labour market.

“One of the weaknesses that we’re now changing is that if you didn’t have post-secondary academic education and very high levels of English or French, your chances of getting into Canada were slim to nil,” he said.

Under the new program, applicants will need to be either pre-approved by a province or territory, or have a job offer in hand.

Other requirements include basic language proficiency and at least two years working experience in their skilled trade.

“We don’t want to re-create the big problems of endless backlogs and wait times that have characterized our dysfunctional system in the past,” said Kenney.

Eligible occupations, including electricians, welders, heavy-duty equipment mechanics, pipefitters and others, will be specified on a list the federal government is now working to draw up with provinces, territories and labour groups.

The list of occupations experiencing labour shortages will be released ahead of the program's official launch in January.

The need for workers is said to be particularly high in northern Alberta, where billions are being spent on oilsands projects.

In a report released last spring, the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada projected that the energy industry there will grow, on average, by 73 per cent by 2021.

And some occupations will add more than 100 per cent of their current workforce by then, it said, noting the forecast did not account for labour market turnover or demand for workers in the construction and service industries.

According to the PHRCC, Canada's oil and gas industry will need to fill a minimum of 9,500 jobs by 2015 in order to accommodate growth in the sector as well as retirements and attrition.

Skilled tradespeople currently make up a small percentage of immigrants to Canada, despite national demand for qualified welders, pipefitters and electricians, for example.

“We always want Canadian (workers) to come first, but let’s be blunt about this, provinces and employers have to do more in terms of skills training in these areas,” said Kenney, adding that he’d like to see vocational training programs emphasized at the high school level.

“We have a lot of skills shortages in trades and a surplus of people coming out (of schools) with a certain kind of academic degree and this has created a paradox of 15 per cent youth unemployment in an economy with hundreds of thousand unfilled jobs.”

When he announced the new program earlier this year, Kenney said the existing criteria put tradespeople at a disadvantage because the rules are geared toward professionals.

Many of them wind up in Canada, Kenney said, but end up unemployed or under-employed in unrelated jobs.

Critics have countered that there are approximately 1.5 million unemployed workers in Canada who could be trained to fill the labour market gaps themselves.

With files from The Canadian Press