A recent forecast by BuildForce has construction leaders in B.C. concerned about how the province will weather the increasing labour crisis that is expected to grow in the coming decade.
“The numbers tell the same story they’ve told for years,” said Chris Atchison, president of the B.C. Construction Association (BCCA). “Overall what I take from this report is not news. We are at a peak for skilled trades jobs, many trades are in high demand, the opportunity for highly rewarding, lucrative careers is there. What has to happen is that government and all of industry need to align their efforts and create fewer barriers to entry, not more.”
BuildForce Canada’s 2020-2029 Construction and Maintenance Looking Forward forecast for B.C. is reporting a 6.5 per cent increase in skilled worker shortage for ICI from last year. Atchison explained that this is the first time since 2013, when BCCA started publishing its stat packs, that there has been an increase in the gap. In 2013, the gap was 30,500 and it’s gone down every year since then.
“The reason it’s jumped a bit now is that the big projects have started and we’re in the early part of peak demand,” said Atchison. “The fact there is a gap is not news to anyone. It’s not good news that it grew.”
Atchison sought to add context to the report, noting that BuildForce completely separates “residential” and “ICI” workers when he believes the industry is not so binary.
“73 per cent of the tradespeople who responded to BCCA’s latest ICI survey say they have also worked in residential construction. This is important because the residential gap, according to the new BuildForce report, is 14,521. The gap is arguably 22,929, if you count our labour force as a whole.”
Atchison also felt BuildForce’s data on women participating in the trades was too high at 6.6 per cent because it includes flaggers and other onsite workers such as safety supervisors, which have a higher rate of gender diversification than skilled trades.
“We still think tradeswomen represent barely 5 per cent of the skilled trades workforce at most, and that women are a huge potential solution for the shortages. Our goal with the Builders Code is 10 per cent by 2028,” said Atchison.
Atchison noted the report also highlighted issues with the B.C. government’s messaging. BuildForce included lists trades most at-risk for shortages. For example, they estimate B.C. needs to attract 24,558 new registrants to meet demand just for carpenters. But in the province’s BC Good Jobs Report 2020, only one construction job was considered a high opportunity.
“If the B.C. government doesn’t think carpenters earn a high enough median wage to make it to the best opportunities list, even though nearly 25,000 are needed, that’s a messaging and policy challenge for industry,” said Atchison.
Atchison found it especially concerning that BuildForce reported registrations for new apprentices has decreased 6 per cent from a peak in 2013, even though the size of the workforce has increased 15 per cent.
“That is a trend in the wrong direction,” said Atchison. “It reflects the fact that there is lots of work, and that it is often a challenge for apprentices to get seats in the college nearest them – courses are booked up months ahead – to advance their training, and that it’s hard to afford to take six weeks off work to sit in the classroom.”
The Vancouver Regional Construction Association (VRCA) responded to the report by asking Victoria and Ottawa to work with the industry to improve the mobility of workers within and between provinces, as well as reduce the hurdles faced by skilled trades wishing to immigrate.
“B.C.’s construction industry is facing a perfect storm,” said Fiona Famulak, VRCA president. “The construction industry’s unemployment rate is at historically low levels of less than four per cent while demand for construction services continues to increase to new highs.”
According to BuildForce, employment in B.C.’s construction industry is forecast to grow by 16,600 workers by 2029 while losing 44,200 workers to retirement, which will be offset somewhat by the 37,800 first-time local new entrants aged 30 years and younger anticipated to enter the province’s construction workforce. This still leaves the industry with a shortfall of some 23,000 workers to meet the forecast demand for construction labour.
The Lower Mainland’s industry is forecast to be hit especially hard. In response to demand, the local industry is predicted to grow by 15,000 workers by 2029. During this period, the industry is expected to lose 25,300 workers to retirement, which will be offset somewhat by the 22,900 new entrants anticipated to join the local construction workforce. This still leaves the Lower Mainland 17,400 workers short by 2029.
Famulak said the Lower Mainland’s near-term outlook is particularly challenging. With numerous overlapping infrastructure projects underway or about to break ground, the industrial, commercial and institutional construction industry will need at least 7,500 additional workers by late 2021 to meet demand.
“To meet the labour demand of the next two years, we need people tooled up and ready to go now,” said Famulak. “We need to recruit skilled workers from other provinces, other industries, and from outside the country in order to avoid project delays.
She said that in the meantime the construction industry will continue its efforts to increase recruitment from groups traditionally underrepresented in the current construction labour force, including women, Indigenous people and new Canadians.