Coming Up Short

Alberta technical schools are churning out skilled workers, but not fast enough to avoid a second wave of the labour shortage

If you want job security for the next decade or so, become a pipefitter, crane operator, insulator, welder or boilermaker.

That's because in the next decade, large resource development projects in Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland-Labrador, and mining and utility-related projects in Ontario, are expected to suck up as many skilled construction workers as Canadian trade schools can train.

That's the scenario envisioned in a study by the Ottawa-based Construction Sector Council (CSC), which represents companies involved in Canada's construction industry.

The study, Construction Looking Forward 2013 to 2021, follows the release of a similar study that predicted demand for skilled construction workers and supervisors for the period from 2011 to 2020 would challenge the ability of apprenticeship programs to meet the industry's needs.

The previous study concluded that a combination of impending retirements and a need for additional workers in Alberta's oilsands and the energy and mining sectors in other provinces would mean Canada might need to import workers to meet its needs.

The newest study paints a similar picture, says Rosemary Sparks, executive director of the CSC. Retirements continue to be a challenge for the industry, with about 210,000 workers expected to retire by 2021.

The CSC also continues to see a need for a significant number of new skilled workers and managers by 2021. Some of those workers would be needed to cope with industrial project growth in Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Newfoundland-Labrador in this decade, with the refurbishment of nuclear power plants and other industrial development in Ontario compounding the challenge later in the decade.

The CSC has estimated that there are 150,000 skilled tradespeople or administrative and management staff employed in the Alberta construction industry, with about 107,000 of those employed in the non-residential sector.

The Edmonton-based Construction Owners Association of Alberta (COAA) has estimated at least 40,000 new skilled and administrative workers will be required in Alberta's construction industry from 2013 to 2021.

May the best man win

"We have $200 billion in projects [mostly related to the oilsands] on the order books in Alberta," says Larry Staples, spokesman for the COAA. "Meanwhile, there are $20 billion in power and energy projects going ahead in Newfoundland-Labrador [a source of skilled workers for Alberta in the past]."

This is good news for Newfoundland-Labrador and the Atlantic provinces, where massive new hydro projects, offshore energy development and shipbuilding contracts will fire up those economies, but Sparks sees it creating additional challenges for western Canada. "Alberta will be competing with other provinces [for workers]," she points out.

Sparks also sees a potential trouble spot with the thousands of skilled workers that have moved to Alberta from Newfoundland-Labrador and the Atlantic provinces over the past two decades: "Will the Newfoundland workers who moved to Alberta stay in Alberta, or will they return to their home province?"

In addition, skilled workers in Newfoundland-Labrador are older than the Canadian average and may not want to move outside the province in the future, especially as there is more local work available. In the past, booming Alberta could count on the mobility of skilled workers from other parts of the country, but Sparks says it won't be able to in the future. "Over the long term, Alberta will be competing for workers with British Columbia, Newfoundland, Saskatchewan and Ontario," she says.

Another challenge is that the growth and related demand for workers will be "lumpy," she says, predicting that 2013 will be a year of expansion in Alberta, 2014 will be active and then activity will plateau in 2015 before seeing substantial growth-mostly oilsands related-from 2016 to 2021.

The CSC expects there to be a slowing in residential construction in many parts of the country, such as the Vancouver area and downtown Toronto, as Canada's recent housing boom ends, but that won't necessarily free up tradespeople for the industrial sector. "The skills aren't transferrable," says Sparks. "An electrician or a carpenter who works in housing can't necessarily work in the oilsands."

Yet another issue industry is facing is competition between workers who build new projects and those who maintain, repair and operate (MRO) large plants. It's expected that MRO expenditures for oilsands-related plants (including refineries, upgraders and oilsands off-gas plants) will soon reach about $20 billion a year, the same amount spent on new oilsands construction.

Canada's largest construction company, PCL Constructors Inc., which owns MRO firm Melloy Industrial Services Inc., is already having to import foreign workers to meet its demands for boilermakers, pipefitters and industrial electricians-and that demand continues to grow, says Roger Keglowitsch, senior vice-president of heavy industrial with PCL. "To service the maintenance and turnaround work required at existing facilities in Alberta today, it would take all the unionized tradespeople in the province," he says.

From the bottom up

Peter Lawlor, dean of trades at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), says his institution, which trains about 12,500 apprentices a year, offers 34 of the 50 apprentice positions that exist in the province. NAIT has the capacity to train about 16,000 apprentices a year-most of them involving four years of training. The institute is currently seeking provincial funding to expand its facilities and training capacity.

Lawlor says some changes in workplace requirements, such as allowing two apprentices to work with each journeyman (past requirements were one apprentice per journeyman), should allow more tradespeople to enter the workforce.

However, Lawlor says the "mindset" of Albertans must also change-more parents need to encourage their children to enter the trades rather than academic training, since there will be huge opportunities in the trades.

Gordon Nixon, vice-president, academic at SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary, says the institution has about 7,800 apprentices now in the 33 trades it offers training for. In 2008-09, the peak year for apprenticeship training at SAIT, it had 10,500 apprenticeship students.

Since then, SAIT has added a new $400-million trades training facility, which would allow the school to substantially increase the amount of training offered were it not for funding limitations from the province. One way the school is getting around this is by offering theoretical training, usually two months of classes at SAIT, in an online form, which will increase student numbers and allow students to continue working while they learn, instead of relying on unemployment insurance.

Nixon says he has already seen the increased need for apprenticeships. "The two bellwether trades are welders and electricians," he says. "When we see the demand for these trades rise, we know it will happen with other trades, and that is what is happening."

SAIT isn't the only educational institute seeing issues with funding limitations. The MacPhail School of Energy, which trains petroleum engineering technologists and power engineers, only has funding for 500 students a year. In 2011, it received 1,800 applications and in 2012 it saw 2,800.

Raymond Massey, chair of the Alberta Apprenticeship and Industry Training Board, says there are about 60,000 registered apprentices in Alberta, with about 10,000 new tradespeople being certified yearly. "All the numbers show we're going to have a severe shortage of skilled workers in the province," he says.

Massey says the organization is working with the federal government to tap its Temporary Foreign Workers program. "We'll need more temporary foreign skilled workers, especially on the larger projects," he says.

The organization is also working with employers to increase the number of apprenticeships, Massey says, pointing to studies that show the return on investment for every $1 spent on an apprentice is $1.47.

Massey predicts the greatest demand will be for electricians, plumbers, boilermakers, carpenters, steamfitters, pipefitters, welders and millwrights. "We have a significant challenge ahead of us," he says.

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