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Stakeholders debate training, infrastructure pledges in Budget 2019

Don Wall
Stakeholders debate training, infrastructure pledges in Budget 2019

National construction industry stakeholders differed sharply over the value of new government infrastructure and workplace training pledges as they digested Budget 2019, delivered by Finance Minister Bill Morneau March 19.

A key focus of analysis was the Canada Training Benefit (CBT), which will offer credits of $250 per year to workers between the ages of 25 and 64 to be put towards skills training, up to a lifetime limit of $5,000.

The government also announced $46 million in funding over four years for Skills Canada to develop a promotional program to attract young Canadians to the skilled trades and launched a new Apprenticeship Strategy with the mandate to address barriers to entry.

Arlene Dunn, director of Canada’s Building Trades Unions (CBTU) and Darrel Reid, vice-president of public affairs for the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA), disagreed on how effective the CBT would be.

“The training, it will be somewhat irrelevant to our construction employers,” said Reid, while acknowledging any steps to promote the trades is positive. “Two-hundred and fifty bucks a year doesn’t get you very far if you want to be a welder.”

Dunn said in a statement, “Funding to support workers who need to get retrained while protecting their income to support their families will open the door to workers who want to upgrade their skills and possibly pursue becoming an electrician or heavy equipment operator or a number of other professions in the construction industry where we need people.”

Canadian Construction Association (CCA) president Mary Van Buren said the CCA welcomes programs that address the workforce shortage.

“I was out in Vancouver at a regional construction association last week and it was very top of mind,” she said. “There are lots of exciting projects to work on and to continue to grow their region, but they are really short of skilled workers.

“The commitment of various funds, the Skills Canada funding, the promotional campaign to attract Canadians to the skilled trades, that is something that we have been saying as well, that there is a bias against the trades and we think the message has to get out that working in the skilled trades is a fantastic opportunity.”

The government reiterated its commitment to the 12-year, $180-billion Investing in Canada infrastructure plan first announced in 2016 and Morneau, who acknowledged there had been problems rolling out the full allocations budgeted for each year, also announced a one-time top-up of $2.2 billion through the federal Gas Tax Fund that doubles the federal commitment to municipalities through the program in 2018-19.

The pledges were welcomed by John Gamble, president and CEO of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies-Canada (ACEC).

“From the perspective of our members and the broader design and construction sector, I don’t think there were any great surprises, something I would categorize as something of a relief,” he said, offering an overview comment on Budget 2019. “The commitment to infrastructure by this government and the legacy commitments by the previous government remain intact in planning going forward.”

The gas tax top-up, he said, is “certainly positive.”

But the PCA and the CCA had criticism. Reid said the PCA’s members and municipalities would benefit from the top-up funding eventually but not soon.

“That will have an effect on our members and construction, but certainly not before the election,” he said. “We all know how long it takes infrastructure projects to get going.”

A statement from the PCA quoted association president Paul de Jong: “This is clearly a pre-election budget, with priorities other than increasing badly needed resource and infrastructure development.”

Reid added the PCA was disappointed there was no acknowledgement of the problems contractors active in the energy sector are facing.

“When you look at a number of our members active in the energy sector and the infrastructure sector, there is very little for them,” he said. “We felt there could be a little more to recognize that.”

The CCA linked the poor flow of infrastructure funding with other issues.

“The CCA had wished to see a fiscal remedy for the ongoing steel and aluminum tariffs, some relief for our heavy construction sector that is facing new challenges with carbon pricing, and a strong commitment to improving the flow of infrastructure funding,” said Van Buren in the statement.

The CCA and other stakeholders also praised a promise by the government to introduce legislation to implement prompt payment.

“Trade contractors, tradespeople, suppliers and families in Canada’s construction sector have been waiting a long time for this,” said Sandra Skivsky, chair of the National Trade Contractors Coalition of Canada, in a statement. “The government has listened to the concerns of trade contractors, suppliers and tradespeople and is focused on making construction more efficient in Canada.”

Gamble also welcomed the government’s commitments to expand broadband connectivity and support the capacity of smaller communities to develop better asset management plans. Broadband expansion will benefit remote and northern communities including the resource sector, he said.

“If there is digital technology, smart technology, artificial intelligence in the mining sector, in the oil and gas sector, that connectivity can certainly help with that so that is a positive,” he said.

The CBTU statement also praised government commitments to assist communities affected by coal plant closures and taking steps on pharmacare.

To read more construction industry reaction to the budget, see what the Mechanical Contractors Association of Canada has to say here.

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