With five major publicly funded construction projects in the works worth about $1 billion, Cape Breton Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia, and its population of roughly 95,000, is poised for a mini economic boom.
“This is an exciting time, it really is,” says Trent Soholt, executive director of the Nova Scotia Construction Sector Council (NSCSC), which provides information about future labour demand and supply and identifies areas of concern related to human resource planning and skills development within the industry.
“One of the biggest challenges we’ve had for so many years is the forecast for work has always seemed fairly low. I’ve been with the council for 16 years and this is the first time I’ve felt this sort of energy and excitement.”
The biggest project on the books is the $500-million Cape Breton Regional Hospital Care Centre expansion which is currently underway and slated for completion in 2027, followed by the $170-million North Sydney health centre and long-term care facility, also scheduled for completion six years from now, and the $170-million Nova Scotia Community College Marconi Campus relocation to the waterfront in Sydney.
Other projects include a $159-million New Waterford health care and community hub redevelopment that is expected to be completed in 2027, and a $56-million Glace Bay hospital expansion which is in the design phase.
It’s not going to be the lowest bid that wins the project. It’s going to be a combination,
— Trent Soholt
Nova Scotia Construction Sector Council
The generational projects are expected to create nearly 800 stable, full-time construction jobs over a six-year period, along with hundreds of private-sector spin-offs. Already, some apartment buildings are starting to go up in downtown Sydney and commercial spaces are expected to begin coming on stream soon.
“This year is really the commencement of a lot of those projects on Cape Breton Island,” says Soholt. “Planning is also getting ready and underway for projects on mainland Nova Scotia as well. You have just over $1 billion of public investment happening in Cape Breton over the next five to seven years largely centred around five major projects and then you’ve got between $2 and $3 billion for mainland over the next five or so years.”
The projects are coming about as a result of an aggressive plan for health care renovation that was put forward two years ago by then Premier Stephen McNeil.
“We haven’t built a lot of hospitals or renovated our hospitals in the province for quite some time and I think out of public need, demographics, and just timing, that was a focal point for the government to start putting that investment in place,” says Soholt.
While the work will bring economic benefits to the area, it will also put pressure on the existing skilled trades workforce of 3,500 on Cape Breton Island when work peaks in 2022 and 2023. Soholt says there may be a need to draw-in some trades from out-of-province but for the most part local workers will be used.
“There are enough people on the island to do the work for these projects. The challenge for us, though, is that we have to make sure that the individuals have the skill sets that align with the opportunities on the jobs. That therein is going to be more complicated.”
Soholt says training will have to be provided to those coming into the sector to allow them to take up the jobs.
There is language in most of the contracts that requires contractors to hire local apprentices and workers, particularly those who are under-represented such as women, Indigenous and African-Nova Scotians. To get the contract, a contractor must show they have diverse individuals working on the project as registered apprentices or journeypersons.
The stipulations in the contracts are an effort to change behaviours and make sure workplaces are more inclusive and look like the communities they serve, says Soholt.
Another requirement is that 25 per cent of the hours registered on a project must be done by apprentices. That mean apprentices will be hired and able to complete their apprenticeships and enter management occupations to be long-term and gainfully employed and not just on the projects, says Soholt.
“It’s not going to be the lowest bid that wins the project. It’s going to be a combination of those who have the best workforce plan, those who have the right price, those who have the right value systems in place, those who can welcome under-represented groups, those who can bring quality to the project or introduce a supply-chain opportunity, all of those things.”
As a result of COVID-19, the NSCSC is looking at innovative ways to get youth interested in the trades. A 53-foot trailer had been used to make the rounds of schools and allow them to try out the trades but that was no longer feasible, so the organization has developed a series of web videos that cover different topics and provide virtual options for youth engagement.
“It’s really to provide a very simple, digestible introduction to construction,” says Soholt. “We’re trying to be creative and find ways to get into the classrooms when we physically can’t.”