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Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Why construction is Canada’s economic heavy lifter

Paul de Jong
Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Why construction is Canada’s economic heavy lifter

Finally, there’s reason for cautious optimism as federal and provincial governments begin to consider the gradual reopening of Canada’s battered economy.

As health officials gain confidence that COVID-19 is waning and the curve is flattening, what’s following are massive government infusions to stimulate recovery and get Canadians back to work. The fixer during times like these is our construction industry. It’s the proven heavy lifter that’s been keeping our economy moving and ready for takeoff.

Since the pandemic started, the construction industry has been on the frontlines. Declared in most jurisdictions as an essential service, thousands of men and women have worked day in and day out at construction sites across Canada to keep our economy alive. They’re maintaining and improving critical infrastructure from energy plants to hospitals; keeping our water running, ensuring our homes are powered and our broadband is up to speed.

Our industry has shown it has what it takes to work through a pandemic. Construction firms and their workers have demonstrated a genuine commitment to protecting public health by ensuring that those who want to work do so safely. Many have gone above and beyond with health screening, staggered shifts, social distancing and hygiene protocols to keep workers and their families healthy.

The construction industry was essential long before COVID-19, but its economic importance has come into greater focus during this crisis. As more businesses shutter and cities across Canada

grapple with daily multimillion-dollar revenue shortfalls, it’s the construction industry that’s been doing the heavy lifting.

It has been the centre of gravity, supporting a critical supply chain, from equipment and building manufacturers, to project designers and truckers. Construction has been keeping many businesses in a broader ecosystem up and running, and out of bankruptcy. And while our industry has played a significant role already, it’s just getting warmed up.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney understands what construction can do for his province’s economy.

“We cannot afford to lose a day when we need this money spent in the economy now,” he insisted, as his government announced it is pumping an additional $1 billion into repairing more roads, schools and bridges to help keep Albertans working.

In Surrey, B.C., city council has adopted a similar mantra. It approved $14 million in capital contracts to update water and sewer services to create 140 new jobs.

In Ottawa, Canada’s infrastructure minister is preparing to move billions of dollars in budgeted, but unspent, infrastructure funding out the door this construction season. The goal is to quickly approve “shovel-ready” projects that can support thousands of direct and indirect jobs right away. This funding comes in advance of an unprecedented national stimulus package that’s likely the largest since the Second World War and the Great Depression.

It was during the economic turmoil of the early ‘30s, when as many as 30 per cent of Canadians were out of work, that the Bennett government introduced a series of work projects, including road widening to help counter staggering unemployment rates.

In 1934, the Public Works Construction Act was passed providing massive stimulus funding for construction projects in our national parks. Later, the National Housing Act of 1938 boosted employment by repairing, maintaining and building new homes. This is the kind of nation-building mindset that worked then and it’s just what’s required from our political leaders now to rebuild Canada’s economy.

The envy of many other sectors, the construction industry leads in providing hard and soft skills training and enormous career opportunities in the skilled trades. It employs as many as 1.3 million people, or one in every 14 Canadians. Few Canadians may realize that the construction industry contributes close to seven per cent of the country’s GDP. Construction investment in Canada last year topped $300 billion.

Our industry has proven itself essential in the best and worst of times. Construction is the go-to industry, the fixer that governments summon during a crisis. If it’s not at the centre of every provincial COVID-19 recovery strategy, it should be.

 

Paul de Jong is president of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA). Send comments and Industry Perspectives op-ed ideas to editor@journalofcommerce.com. 

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