Ontario’s construction labour force will experience significant crunches this year and again in 2024 to 2026 as the sheer volume of planned projects stretches the workforce to its limits.
BuildForce Canada’s 2020–2029 Construction and Maintenance Looking Forward provincial report, released Feb. 4, said the construction sector will have to hire and retain almost 100,000 workers in the next 10 years to keep pace with demand and compensate for the large boomer retirement drain.
The sector has been aware of the looming workforce gap for decades, said Bill Ferreira, executive director of BuildForce Canada, but the extent of the problem has been highlighted more clearly in recent years as private and public project owners have laid out timelines for major projects.
“The challenge has been that the volume of work is just so great,” Ferreira remarked. “We are looking at $130 billion in investments in the province right now in the next few years and at that level of investment the demands on existing labour is going to be significant.
“When you factor in a significant number of retirements, close to 86,000 in the next 10 years, plus the demand growth we anticipate will come because of all this investment, employers are going to have to hire almost 100,000 new workers between now and 2029.”
Demand this year is being driven by major transit projects including the Eglinton, Hurontario and Finch LRT projects in the GTA and the Ottawa LRT, institutional construction and modernization, and overlapping demands from the Darlington and Bruce nuclear refurbishment projects.
The report said the GTA will likely require an additional 3,700 workers to meet both residential and non-residential demands in 2020.
The next peak, leading up to 2026, will be fuelled by subway expansions and the GO Transit rail electrification project, alongside numerous large hospital projects. It is anticipated the region will need 19,400 additional workers at that point, a 12-per-cent increase from 2019.
Across the province, BuildForce predicts that construction employment will rise by just over 23,000 workers — a six-per-cent increase — by 2026 before receding by close to 13,600 workers as major projects wind down.
Women represent 39 per cent of off-site workers but only 3.8 per cent of the onsite workforce,
— Bill Ferreira
To counter the workforce losses created by retirements by 2029, BuildForce reported the industry can potentially draw 79,000 new entrants aged 30 and younger from the local population, but a projected gap of close to 22,000 workers will still need to be met.
That shortage will have to be filled from either outside the province, the industry or the country, Ferreira said.
“When you look at the immigration plan, Canada is going to continue to attract a high number of new Canadians over next 10 years,” he said. “New Canadians in Ontario currently make up 26 per cent of the overall industry and in places like Toronto it is higher than that so obviously the industry is going to continue to recruit high numbers of new Canadians into the industry.”
Out-of-province workers are another important source given that some provinces currently have soft construction economies, Ferreira said.
As for recruiting of underrepresented groups, Ferreira cited numbers showing the number of females working on jobsites remains distressingly low.
“Women represent 39 per cent of off-site workers but only 3.8 per cent of the onsite workforce,” he said. “Clearly doing a much better job of marketing careers to women would help the industry. If we can move that 3.8 per cent to 12 or 15 per cent, that would go a long way to meeting the demands the industry is going to have.”
The report looked at workforce demand trade by trade in the non-residential sector and concluded that for 2020 in the GTA there were 21 trades for whom “workers meeting employer qualifications are generally not available in local markets to meet any increase. Employers will need to compete to attract additional workers. Recruiting and mobility may extend beyond traditional sources and practices.”
Trades with particularly urgent shortages are steam fitters, boilermakers, electricians, ironworkers, structural metal fabricators, pipefitters and sprinkler system installers. However, the supply of crane operators, critically short in 2019, has improved over the last year.
Ferreira said stakeholders are aware action is needed on multiple fronts to recruit the workers that will be required.
“The call to action is to the entire industry but that doesn’t mean the industry isn’t doing what it can right now,” he said. “I believe it is. Pretty much anyone you speak to is very much engaged in recruitment across the province. There are a number of ongoing initiatives both at the federal level and the provincial level to try and promote careers in the skilled trades to address this challenge.”
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