Between 2019 and 2021, a significant amount of competing large-scale, multi-billion dollar projects are expected to commence in British Columbia. Construction demand is growing faster than the labour force as peak activity approaches.
In the Lower Mainland, demand is being driven by high levels of both residential and non-residential construction. Key projects include the Pattullo Bridge replacement, the Vancouver airport expansion, the Millennium Line and Surrey light rail transit systems, St. Paul’s Hospital, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority container expansion, and a range of pipeline projects. The ongoing growth in demand for residential and commercial buildings will only add to these strong labour market pressures.
In northern B.C., the start of construction on the LNG Canada facility along with ongoing work at BC Hydro’s Site C project, the development of the TC Energy Coastal GasLink pipeline, Phase 4 of the Highway 1 project, and other major public infrastructure projects are stretching the available labour force beyond its limits.
Hundreds of smaller projects across the province are also combining to add strain to labour markets.
Based on current known demands, BuildForce Canada estimates that the labour force will need to grow by at least 14,600 workers – 1,700 residential and 12,900 non-residential – by 2021. At the same time, the industry is expected to lose approximately 13,000 workers due to retirement, while only adding a possible 11,300 new entrant workers during this period. Combined, this could create a potential recruitment gap of 16,300 workers by 2021.
Where will construction workers come from to satisfy peak demand?
Following the 2008-09 recession, unemployment rates in the construction sector dropped significantly from about 6.0 to only 3.7 per cent by 2018. Lower unemployment rates provide plenty of opportunities for workers, but significantly constrain the ability of employers to recruit inside the province.
Northern B.C. will likely require a set of skills significantly different from those in the Lower Mainland. Major industrial projects in the north will drive demand for industrial trades, such as boilermakers, steamfitters, pipefitters, millwrights, ironworkers, and welders. Lower Mainland skillsets will skew to civil construction. The simultaneous peaks of activity in both regions and somewhat mismatched skillsets will discourage labour mobility within the province.
Attracting workers from outside the province will also be a challenge. While construction workers from Atlantic Canada could once be counted on as a swing workforce, stronger demand in Ontario is creating significant competition for these workers. Projects such as the construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge, Toronto’s Eglinton LRT (light rail transit) project, and nuclear refurbishments for Ontario Power Generation and Bruce Power are all contributing to similar labour force demands that will compete directly with B.C. for the same skillsets.
While apprenticeship programs are essential to building the province’s long-term workforce, they are unlikely to produce short-term relief to meet B.C.’s current demand up-cycle. Since programs take three to four years to complete, apprenticeships alone are unlikely to fill the anticipated requirements. And with growing competition from other sectors for youth, ensuring the construction and maintenance industry continues to attract its historical share of young workers is far from guaranteed.
Moving forward, the path is clear — the industry must broaden its recruitment to attract the new workers it requires to keep pace with construction and maintenance industry demands.
Clearly, expanding recruitment to draw in more individuals from groups traditionally underrepresented in the current construction labour force, such as women, Indigenous people and new Canadians will be essential to avoid the formation of labour force gaps created by the growing number of retirements.
To that end, BuildForce has developed a number of tools to help employers with labour force development. Key among these is our Working in a Respectful and Inclusive Workplace online course and employer support tools. The tools are available on our website and were designed to assist employers, large and small, to implement policies and procedures that can create a more welcoming and inclusive workplace environment. Simply put, the industry needs to ensure that the investments made to recruit new workers to the industry are fully realized and not undermined by onsite behaviours that discourage new workers from remaining.
As the B.C. construction and maintenance industry addresses the challenges of peak labour demand in 2021, ongoing attention to labour force recruitment and retention will be invaluable and help set the stage for developing a sustainable and diverse labour force into the future.
Bill Ferreira is the executive director of BuildForce Canada. BuildForce Canada is a national industry-led organization committed to working with the construction industry to provide information and resources to assist with its management of workforce requirements.