Crunch time

Filling positions is about to become even more of a challenge for industry

If you're an executive with a construction company, or an employee within a company expecting to build a large project over the next decade, the news is not good.

A pair of new reports-one by the Construction Sector Council (CSC) and the other by the Construction Owners Association of Alberta (COAA)-give some hard numbers to the looming labour shortage we've all heard about. They project a shortage of about 320,000 construction workers in the country between now and 2019.

The CSC study, Construction Looking Forward 2011 to 2019, compiled from Statistic Canada and other sources, acted as the baseline for the COAA report and for forecasts being used by the Alberta Construction Association, says researcher Larry Staples. He compiled studies for both Alberta groups; both studies came out in the spring.

Staples also worked with the group headed by University of Calgary economist Robert Mansell, which produced a report in March sanctioned by the Alberta Chamber of Resources as part of its Task Force on Resource Development and the Economy. That report forecasts a similar shortage in the energy specific sector.

The CSC study says projected retirements, as baby boomers leave the field, will create a need for over 200,000 replacement workers. About one-third of the 320,000 workers that will be required will be needed to cope with growth.

At least 40,000 of those workers will be needed in Alberta, across all skilled trades areas, Staples says.

"Demographics accounts for the largest percentage," he says. "But the demand for construction workers will be going up and up. In Alberta they'll be needed to build oilsands projects and in central Canada to build power plants."

Unlike it has in the past, Alberta can't necessarily count on a source of labour from central Canada and the Maritimes. That's because the multi-billion-dollar Lower Churchill hydro project in Newfoundland-Labrador and offshore oil projects will suck up the available labour supply in eastern Canada. As well, nuclear plant projects and other large projects are expected to create a need for workers in Ontario.

Meanwhile, he says forecasters such as the Canadian Energy Research Institute, forecast a need for up to 500,000 workers in the oilsands. Many of those needed will be construction workers.

"That's a big number," he points out.

George Gritziotis, executive director of the CSC, says about 1.1 million people are employed in Canada's construction industry. About 70 per cent of them are "on the tools" while the rest are in management. That includes workers in heavy industry, and commercial and residential construction.


"There are about 16 million people employed in Canada, so more than one out of 16 is involved in the construction sector," he notes. "It's responsible for 12 per cent of Canada's gross domestic product."

While no sector was spared the wrath of the Great Recession of 2008, the construction sector fared better than it had in past recessions.

"In past recessions the unemployment rate got as high as 20 per cent or 30 per cent in the sector, but in this past recession it was less than 10 per cent."

Both the national organization and Alberta organizations involved in the sector recommend a multi-pronged strategy to deal with the projected shortage, according to Staples and Gritziotis.

Gritziotis says a serious concern regarding the retirement of older workers is that the industry is the loss of "skill and technology transfer," as less-experienced workers fill supervisory positions. On the other hand, opportunities for promotion will be attractive.

"I don't think a lot of tradespeople recognize the opportunities there will be to go beyond their tools, to supervisory positions," he says.

The good news is that the industry is being proactive, looking for solutions ahead of time to the problem. Staples says the associations involved with the sector speak regularly to governments, making them aware of what steps need to be taken.

As an example, one problem in Alberta is that post-secondary institutions have their funding cut by the government as soon as the economy turns down. By the time the economy improves, the schools haven't been able to ramp up programs fast enough.

"The governments and the post-secondary institutions base the number of apprenticeship positions on the past two to three years," he says. "As a result, there are often more apprentices that need training than there are positions at the schools."

The thinking has always been that Alberta's resource industry is a boom-bust sector. But that is changing, he says, because the oilsands plants are essentially manufacturing facilities. That has created a demand for trades beyond short-term construction projects.

"The construction sector will be offering opportunities for great, long-term careers," he says.

The call for better planning is being addressed by Calgary's SAIT Polytechnic, which is launching a new program in construction management. The industry is working with post-secondary institutions to fill other gaps.

Staples says there's a need for more professionalism in the industry, where absenteeism is twice as high on construction sites as in manufacturing.


"That's a multi-layered problem," he notes. "It stems from difficult working conditions on sites and from management not often recognizing it needs to respond to those conditions. We need to make the industry more inviting if we are going to attract the next generation of workers."

There's a huge untapped workforce in Canada, Staples and Gritziotis say.

"Only five percent of construction workers are women," Gritziotis says. "That compares with 50 per cent in the overall workforce in Canada."

Staples says steps need to be taken to accommodate women into the workforce, starting with the recognition that they have family responsibilities. They might have to be given more flextime, something that should be considered for the next generation of workers overall.

Staples says the Alberta Chamber of Resources study he was involved in showed that the energy industry will continue to be the engine of Alberta's growth going forward. And it will be the source of most of the skilled-worker demand.

"We are blessed with numerous resources, but if we realize what the potential is under our feet we have an incredible opportunity. However, we have to get it right."

Gritziotis says it's not too late to deal with the looming number of workers that will be needed in the industry.

"I refuse to use the word ‘crisis,'" Gritziotis says. "The industry knows there is going to be this big need and it's putting together strategies to deal with it. We don't want it to hit us between the eyes."

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