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Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Opening our doors for construction workers

Steven Crombie
Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Opening our doors for construction workers

Canada’s population is aging. Over the next 20 years, Canada’s senior population (those aged 65 and older) is expected to grow by 68 per cent.

This, coupled with Canada’s low birth rate, will create economic and fiscal challenges in the years to come.

In October 2020 the Canadian government announced the Immigration Levels Plan, the most ambitious immigration plan in the nation’s history. Canada will aim to welcome more than 400,000 new immigrants per year.

Of the 400,000 new Canadians, about 60 per cent will be welcomed as citizens or permanent residents based on their skill sets. To achieve this ambitious target, the federal government has created economic class programs which include Express Entry and the Provincial Nominee Program.

To rank immigration candidates, the Canadian government has developed a merit-based points system that assigns a score to each candidate in the Express Entry pool. This points system is called the Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS) and the score assigned to each candidate is called the CRS score.

The goal of Express Entry is to prioritize the selection of the “best and brightest” over the “first-come, first-served” principle. Since Express Entry is a relatively new system, it is still too early to draw any definitive conclusions about its function, but one obvious limitation is the ranking of construction skill sets in the CRS score.

The Federal Skilled Trades Program, an economic class immigration program, defines “skilled work experience” as managerial jobs, professional jobs, and skilled trades which hold a certification of qualification (CofQ). Occupations in the sewer and watermain construction industry are classified under Skill Level D and are not recognized as a “skilled worker.”

The sewer and watermain construction industry have historically offered economic opportunities to immigrants from all over the world. If Canada’s long-term immigration strategy aims to identify skilled workers that can help Canada achieve its economic objectives, then construction workers must be given priority during immigration.  

To do this Canada’s Express Entry system should do more to recognize the skill sets and work experience of foreign construction workers.

The only way Canada’s ambitious infrastructure priorities can be delivered is through expanding its construction labour force. Much of the construction workforce is set to retire by 2030, new entrants into the industry are flatlining, and historic levels of infrastructure investments are creating a tight squeeze on the construction labour market.  

According to Oxford Economics and ConstructConnect the Canadian construction market will be in a sustained growth phase until at least 2030. Labour market participation is near an all time high at 65 per cent, this, coupled with low unemployment, means that Canada is unable to grow or even sustain its construction workforce without immigration.

A 2017 report from BCG Consulting estimates the national infrastructure deficit ranges from $50 billion to $570 billion with most averaging between $110 billion and $270 billion. Low interest rates and economic recovery are the key driving factors behind recent public infrastructure investments.  

Government spending on infrastructure deficits and new housings starts will continue to drive construction activity over the next decade. Yet, over this period Canada will lose much of its construction workforce to retirement.

Both infrastructure and residential construction are comprised mostly of Skill Level D general labourers, occupations that don’t require a CofQ to work in the trade.

While skill sets within these industries are informal, they are in fact highly specialized and take years of on-the-job training to become proficient. The informality of certification in construction has contributed to governments at all levels struggling to define construction skill sets, often defining the many occupations as “general labourer.”

Infrastructure construction workers rank low within the currently designed comprehensive ranking system. This means construction workers with highly sought-after skill sets, and strong economic prospects are being left out of Canada’s immigration strategy.

If Canada does not start prioritizing foreign construction workers in its immigrations strategy it will fail to achieve its long-term housing and infrastructure objectives.

Steven Crombie is manager of government and public affairs with the Greater Toronto Sewer and Watermain Contractors Association and the Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association. Send Industry Perspectives column ideas and comments to editor@dailycommercialnews.com.

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