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Go west (and north), young man!


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April 1, 2014 by PATRICK CALLAN

The next generation of Canadian construction workers will have a decidedly younger look. As the industry scrambles to replace an aging workforce, the immediacy to find a fresh crop of skilled workers cannot be understated. A recent forecast from BuildForce Canada estimates that 235,000 new workers will be needed over the period 2014-2023 in order to offset retirements and keep pace with expected demand.

Replenishing the existing workforce despite abnormally high retirement rates is a challenge all provinces share: 24 per cent of the Canadian construction workforce will retire over the next 10 years. Western Canada is already in dire need of workers, and the situation is only expected to get worse in the coming decade with many large projects on the books, particularly in Alberta and British Columbia.

While construction employment rates in Ontario and Quebec will remain on par with the national average, the situation will be much different on Canada’s East Coast. BuildForce predicts there will be ample construction work across the country, but the shifting demographics in the construction workforce will hit Atlantic Canada—which has one of the oldest populations—the hardest. Retaining homegrown skilled workers, against the allure of heading to the booming western provinces, could prove to be a daunting task.

Atlantic Canada

“The aging population is a critical piece for the Atlantic provinces,” said Rosemary Sparks, BuildForce Canada’s executive director. New Brunswick, for example, will lose 28 per cent of its construction workforce to retirement in the next 10 years.

“The other thing is, with the exception of Newfoundland and Labrador, the other Atlantic provinces are going to have steady employment but not large growth in employment,” she said. “Newfoundland and Labrador is a little bit different because they’re still in a peak of activity right now, but that will slow down after 2015.”

With stronger overall growth in Western Canada, there is a higher likelihood of young workers moving there to find work, both temporarily and permanently, said Sparks. “The challenge for the Atlantic provinces is to keep the workforce that they’re going to require, and at the same time as they’re replenishing that workforce, to accommodate the loss of skilled workers through retirement.”

Central Canada

Quebec is coming off a period of strong growth, with a record peak in 2012, largely as a result of hydro and utilities related projects. The province will now transition into a relatively stable period of more moderate growth “after a really remarkable boom in construction,” said Sparks. Quebec will need to replenish its workforce by about 47,000 people over the next decade.

Northern Ontario will see lots of activity in mining, utility and resource-based construction industries, while the Greater Toronto Area will have it’s hands full with major transportation projects.

“When we look a little bit forward, we’re going to start to see the refurbishment of the nuclear plants,” said Sparks. It will be interesting to see if workers will move from the less busy parts of the province to where the work is, or if workers will have to be brought in from outside the province to meet peak demands, she added. “Even though construction is remaining reasonably strong across the country, the significant growth is going to take place in Western Canada.”

Prairies

Manitoba’s workforce requirements will be driven largely by major hydroelectric and transmission types of projects in the northern part of the province. BuildForce predicts Manitoba will peak in both 2016 and 2020; however, it will also lose 21 per cent of its construction workforce over the next decade.

One of Manitoba’s main competitors will be neighbouring Saskatchewan, which has been an “incredibly strong” construction market over the last few years, particularly in the residential sector, potash mines, and other resource-based industries in the northern part of the province. “Saskatchewan’s had a pretty great ride,” said Sparks. “Things will slow a little bit, but certainly there will still be work to do.”

Continuing west, it should come as no surprise that big things are expected from Alberta’s construction industry in the coming years. Growth in the oilsands will continue to be strong, peaking from about 2014 to 2019. “Alberta continues to be a hub of strong construction activity,” she said, adding after years of building, employment requirements for sustaining projects will exceed new projects.

“Finding workers from other parts of the country has been a successful strategy for Alberta in the past. We just don’t know going forward if that will still be as strong a solution for them, given the fact that we do have work in other parts of the country, and secondly that we have this aging population.”

British Columbia

“B.C. has got the potential to be an incredibly strong construction market going forward, and this is really driven by major projects, largely in northern B.C., where we’re looking at the LNG (liquid natural gas) plants, pipeline work, mining and industrial and utilities work,” said Sparks. BuildForce estimates B.C.’s workforce will need to grow by about 17,000 jobs to accommodate growth in that part of the province alone.

Sparks said about 34,000 construction workers are expected to retire over the next decade in B.C. and they will need to be replaced with workers from the southern part of the province, across Canada and abroad during peak times. “There’s real potential for some significant growth in B.C. It is largely going to take place between 2014 to 2018.”

Outlook good

Sparks said overall the construction industry remains among the fastest growing sectors in Canada. Mobility is going to be key to meeting the industry’s needs of specialized skills and experience––especially in the west. “It puts a real focus on the need to work together to draw in youth, women, aboriginal people and newcomers to Canada, in order to really engage our entire workforce in the potential for careers in construction,” she said.

Retiring construction workers, 2014-2023 (% of construction workforce)

  • Newfoundland/Labrador 4,700 (23%)
  • Nova Scotia 6,600 (25%)
  • New Brunswick 6,000 (28%)
  • Prince Edward Island 1,500 (23%)
  • Quebec 47,000 (25%)
  • Ontario 83,000 (25%)
  • Manitoba 7,300 (21%)
  • Saskatchewan 7,000 (19%)
  • Alberta 37,500 (22%)
  • British Columbia 34,000 (24%)
  • Canada 234,600 (24%)

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