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Associations, Labour

Alberta addresses worker shortages with employee loan program

Russell Hixson
Alberta addresses worker shortages with employee loan program
CITY OF MEDICINE HAT — Companies in Medicine Hat and Grande Prairie are using an employee loan program to prevent workers from being laid off and leaving for larger cities.

A new pilot project in Alberta is looking to help retain workers in smaller communities.

The project aims to help contractors develop and retain workers during ups and downs in the volume of work by facilitating temporary loans between trusted contractors.

The effort is a collaboration between the Medicine Hat, Grande Prairie and Alberta Construction Associations funded by the Government of Alberta. The second year of the pilot will add other regions of the province.

Participating contractors share monthly updates with the associations regarding the surplus or shortage of workers they are expecting and the associations facilitate the loans through a checklist of items for the two contractors to agree on.

The idea came from John Digman, executive director of the Medicine Hat Construction Association (MHCA). The region had been studying ways to retain young workers who often moved to larger cities. After conducting extensive research he found some companies in the province had already informally dabbled in sharing workers.

“As we all know, the workforce is aging and you’ve got to bring young people into the trades and not just in Calgary or Edmonton,” said Digman. “This will allow an apprentice to go to another company to maintain their work hours rather than be laid off.”

A recent example of this was Pad-Car Mechanical in Medicine Hat lending workers to DMT Business Group in Lethbridge for work at the MCF feedlot in Brooks.

Pad-Car loaned as many as five journeymen to DMT over a number of weeks. The workers remained on Pad-Car’s payroll and benefits. DMT gave the workers the choice of temporary accommodation in Brooks or receiving wages for travel time. DMT paid Pad-Car wages and mileage allowance.

Ken Gibson, executive director of the Alberta Construction Association (ACA), explained it was a win-win situation. Pad-Car Mechanical didn’t have to lay off young employees and DMT was able to make use of experienced tradespeople who lived closer to the jobsite.

“The entire morale boost was fantastic,” said Gibson. “It sends a signal to staff that the owners care about their workers and will take that step to keep them employed.”

Gibson said solving this problem is critical to addressing the impending worker shortage.

“There is no point in industry and government pouring all this effort into recruiting if they are laid off during the first sign of a downturn,” he said. “It kills the whole approach. This way you can say to people that if they come into our industry they will be looked after.”

The associations have found the biggest concern among contractors interested in the program is trust as it often involves collaborating with one’s competitors or strangers. Companies told the associations they specifically want to know that their workers are going to be treated well and kept safe.

“Yes, you have to step outside your comfort zone and think outside the box but look, we beat each other up on every tender but once the tender closes there is winner and loser,” said Gibson. “We don’t need to keep beating each other up, because if we don’t, we will keep losing people.”

He added strategies like this are key if there is going to be a viable construction industry throughout the whole province.

There are currently more than a dozen contractors participating in the Grande Prairie and Medicine Hat regions. Gibson and Digman encouraged any interested companies in the region to reach out to the ACA or MHCA.

Follow the author on Twitter @RussellReports.

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