Like many other construction stakeholders parsing the federal budget after it was unveiled by Finance Minister Bill Morneau, the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) loved the big round infrastructure spending numbers mentioned — 10 years, $120 billion to be spent on infrastructure.
And like others, they have their theories but are not quite certain what to make of the back-loaded Phase 2 infrastructure spending plan laid out by Morneau.
But beyond those issues, the PCA uniquely tends to look for opportunities to advance its open-contract program and in Budget 2016 it has discovered an issue — training and skills development — that it will seek to exploit in further dialogue with the government, says PCA president Paul de Jong.
The budget, released March 22, included an additional $125 million in 2016-17 for Labour Market Development Agreements (LMDA) and an additional $50 million in 2016-17 for Canada Job Fund Agreements. In total, the PCA noted in a media statement, $85.4 million will be spent over five years to develop a "new framework" to support union-based apprenticeship training and "support innovative approaches" with industry stakeholders.
"PCA members and their labour partner CLAC are already leaders in union-based training and apprenticeship," said de Jong in the statement.
"We are excited to work with the government to strengthen our efforts in this area and train Canada’s workforce of tomorrow."
Working with the CLAC (Christian Labour Association of Canada), the PCA is engaged in an ongoing effort to gain greater acceptance for a third cohort of contractors and workers beyond traditional closed union and non-union contracts, explained de Jong in an interview.
The new skills training program is such an opportunity, he says.
"There is a fairly robust commitment to funding unionized apprenticeship skills training and we think as a contractor group that skills training for apprentices and journeypersons is a fantastic investment that we can make," said de Jong.
"We think that is a good news story but again, the key is in the details, whether those monies would be available to the full spectrum of unionized and structured employees whether they be employee associations, alternative unions or traditional unions."
More broadly, says de Jong, the PCA aims to lobby the Liberals to include their third-rail option more comprehensively as they develop procurement policy.
"The first question is ensuring open and fair tendering processes for all those public monies as they get placed into projects and into municipalities because there are some jurisdictions in Canada where the labour laws are fairly antiquated and they don’t allow for the full spectrum of the unionized work force to be participants," he said.
"And so one of the things that we will be doing, in a constructive manner, is working with and urging the government to make the necessary modifications to the labour laws and to the bidding practices to ensure they are open and fair across the board in all jurisdictions."
Given the PCA’s strong western base, de Jong welcomed announced changes to Employment Insurance eligibility.
The budget aims to expand access to EI for new entrants, reduce wait times for receiving EI, simplify job search requirements and extend regular EI benefits in certain areas.
Construction workers in the hard-hit resource sectors in Alberta and Saskatchewan will be among the beneficiaries of the changes, he said.
De Jong also weighed in with comments on the two phases of infrastructure spending announced by Morneau.
The first phase will see a spend of $11.9 billion on basic projects such as water and wastewater systems while Phase 2 is targeted at projects that will incorporate broader policy goals such as "a more modern, cleaner economy, a more inclusive society" and projects that will enhance Canada’s international trade productivity, indicates the budget document.
"I think we’re going to learn more as the days and months progress in terms of what Phase 2 is going to look like," said de Jong.
"I think that there’s probably a bit of a sense that the government wants to see how Phase 1 is implemented considering its size and significance. I think they want to get shovels in the ground pretty quickly but perhaps they’re trying to stage this in a way that allows for some modification where appropriate for Phase 2."
Commenting on the overall volume of spending in relation to the PCA’s heartland, de Jong said, "Many of our contractors will anticipate the appearance of this infrastructure money for the work that they do whether on roadbuilding or sewage treatment plants etc.
"This is the kind of thing that’s really going to boost morale in places like Alberta and Saskatchewan where they have been hollowed out by the drop in oil and gas prices."