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P.E.I. needs skilled construction workers immediately: CAPEI

Don Wall
P.E.I. needs skilled construction workers immediately: CAPEI

The Prince Edward Island government and BuildForce Canada say there is an immediate need to bolster the island’s construction workforce, as unmet labour demand in both the ICI and residential sectors in the next five years threaten to stall potential growth.

Sam Sanderson, general manager of the Construction Association of Prince Edward Island (CAPEI), said in a recent interview the numbers forecast by BuildForce correspond directly with what he hears from constructors.

"Right now not only our commercial side but our residential side are really struggling with the lack of skilled labour," said Sanderson. "Let me emphasize that word, skilled. We have an ample supply of labour, we just don’t have an ample supply of skilled labour.

"I am hearing every day, potential new homebuilders can’t find a contractor. There is a development here, a possibility of 170-plus homes, and they are having trouble finding a builder."

The province’s construction sector has an immediate requirement for 500 to 750 workers, said the provincial government in a media release, and as many as 1,800 workers will be needed over the next 10 years to keep pace with major projects, retirements and growth in the sector. Non-residential investment in construction in P.E.I. currently has the fastest growth among provinces, and residential investment in new homes and renovations saw an expansion of 5.2 per cent in 2016, the province said.

"Overall the island is abuzz with construction," said Sanderson. "We’re forecasting 2017 and 2018 and 2019 being huge in the commercial side of things. And the residential side being every bit as good, and we were showing very positive numbers through 2020 and beyond."

BuildForce said even as near-term demands related to a transmission project and highway and bridge work peak in 2017, anticipated increases in infrastructure investment will contribute to sustaining engineering employment over the longer term.

Over the next 10 years, there will be 1,500 retirements in the sector but only 1,200 new workers joining the construction workforce unless aggressive recruitment measures are taken, said BuildForce.

"Red Seal carpenters are in huge demand," said Sanderson. "Supervisors, site supervisors, project managers, a few companies looking for estimators, there is a need in HVAC, there is a need in flooring installers, there is a need in sheet metal, finished trades, drywallers and tapers, there is a huge demand for skilled labour."

The government is looking to the CAPEI to expand its training programming and has announced funding through the Canada-P.E.I. Labour Market Development Agreement and the Canada-P.E.I. Job Fund Agreement to support programming. The government is currently supporting training and employment initiatives for 100 workers in construction, and will double that support as part of the new initiative. Holland College is the main source of skilled construction workers.

Sanderson listed five potential sources of new skilled labour — young people, indigenous Canadians, new Canadians, women and mature workers looking for a career change.

"There are lots of people aged say between 30 and 45 who have never had the opportunity to train in the trades," said Sanderson. "Their children may be a little bit older now, those people have great work ethic, great life experience, stuff that they don’t need to be taught."

Hiking wages might seem an obvious way to boost the labour supply but Sanderson said current circumstances on the island are converging to make affordability an issue. First, the HST was increased by one per cent a year ago, driving up costs. Second, the province has recently announced plans to adopt the National Building Code everywhere throughout the province, a move that Sanderson said is welcome but will increase costs significantly.

"That is going to be a huge impact on homeowners not only in cost, because it is going to kill the underground economy, but also the permitting systems," he said. "Right now there are no inspections except on electrical and plumbing, then all of a sudden there are going to be four or five inspections per build and that is going to mean a substantial increase per home."

Sanderson said the pay differential is what prompts so many islanders to head west to seek construction jobs. But P.E.I. constructors are not in a position to increase wages to bring them back home, he said. If hourly pay were to go from $25 to $40, he said, buildings would not get built.

But wages are not everything, he said.

"We are not only promoting a healthy industry but a healthy lifestyle as well," said Sanderson. "P.E.I. is a pretty nice spot. There is a relaxed lifestyle, we are hoping some of our expats might consider coming back with their trade and their experience."

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