Reaction to the 2019 federal budget among B.C. construction industry stakeholders is cautiously optimistic, though there are a few reservations.
The federal government’s new Canada Training Benefit, which will spend $1.7 billion over five years and $586.5 million each year after that, was looked upon favourably across the board by the province’s construction leaders.
“That’s big. We’re facing a skill shortage already across Canada, but we’ll need 8,000 skilled workers in a short time. We need to do everything we can to get young people into construction as a career,” said BC Building Trades executive director Tom Sigurdson.
“We need to couple the awareness along with incentives that will help young people get in training and income support helps. What we need is opportunities.”
Independent Contractors and Businesses Association president Chris Gardner is also in favour of the new training credit.
“Any investment made in training is good. The challenge for B.C. is that we have a shortage of spaces in colleges and institutions. You can put all the dollars you want into training but if students can’t get into a technical trades program in college because of a one or two year wait list, we need to do more,” he said.
For individuals, training credits of $250 are accumulated each year with a lifetime limit of $5,000. Beginning in 2020, the credit can be used to fund up to half the costs of enrolling in a training program at colleges, universities and other eligible institutions for occupational skills training.
“It may not seem like an awful lot, but when you don’t have much it will,” Sigurdson said. “Would I like it to be $500 or $1,000? Of course, but it’s a start not a conclusion. There’s room to grow and we’ll advocate for that.”
Sigurdson also approved of the $2.2-billion one-time top-up for municipal infrastructure introduced in last week’s budget.
“We’ve got crumbling infrastructure across the country. Get the municipalities involved that want to start projects and get them going. We’ll have a hot economy over the next number of years and municipal infrastructure has to be a priority. We can’t afford to have bridges in poor repair. We have the Broadway light rail transit project that needs to be built, and we have water treatment plants and pipelines that need to be built as well,” he said.
British Columbia Construction Association president Chris Atchison said it’s important that industry has a seat at the table to properly leverage dollars towards projects.
The budget nods at some industry hot buttons but doesn’t go far enough. B.C. contractors need meaningful solutions
— Chris Atchison
British Columbia Construction Association
“$2.2 billion in expenditure will be important as there’s lots of activity that needs to occur at the municipal level. We just hope with those funds there’s adherence to best practices in procurement,” Atchison said.
Gardner echoed Atchison’s procurement concerns.
“The Broadway corridor LRT project is starting to move forward and that’s a project the provincial NDP government has applied ‘building trades only’ hiring to. Eight-five per cent of the workforce is frozen out, and 30 per cent of that project is funded by the federal government and they’re silent on the procurement process,” he said.
Gardner also praised the infrastructure top-up but warned not to let infrastructure initiatives get bogged down in “endless debate that paralyzes us.”
“The Massey Tunnel is 60 years old and clearly needs to be replaced but that’s been delayed. It’s been studied to death, and in fact it’s delayed again and we’re seven to 10 years away from a new solution,” he said. “If the federal government is investing in infrastructure that’s great, but it would be good to get a decision to build in a timely fashion.”
Both Atchison and Gardner also pointed to a lack of action on steel and aluminum tariffs as a disappointment.
“The budget nods at some industry hot buttons but doesn’t go far enough. B.C. contractors need meaningful solutions to problems like tariffs and the flow of federal dollars to a skilled workforce,” Atchison said.
“Duties on steel, rebar and aluminum influence the cost of projects. It makes everything more expensive and plays a role in affordable housing,” Gardner added. “It’s a policy made in central Canada for central Canada. B.C. and Alberta don’t get their steel from those mills, don’t have their own mills that can address supply and have to buy from the United States. The silence from the federal government on that front is disappointing.”
The budget addressed affordable housing with $1.25 billion over three years for a first-time buyer shared-equity mortgage program along with an RRSP withdrawal raise from $25,000 to $35,000 for first-time homebuyers.
“Apprentices come down to the Lower Mainland for short periods and the rental market is so tight. Will this help? Not immediately, but it will help in the long term,” Sigurdson said.
He also addressed additional spending on the opioid crisis announced in the budget as beneficial to construction industry workers.
“We’re overrepresented in overdoses and deaths in the construction industry and I know of too many people who died alone at home after self-medicating for pain management,” he said. “Every little bit helps and I applaud the province and the federal government for looking at a subject a lot pf people don’t want to hear about.”