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Workers pour concrete at the Vale nickle processor construction site in Long Harbour, Placentia Bay, Nfld. Newfoundland and Labrador is facing a labour crunch as megaprojects come on-line. (Greg Locke for The Globe and Mail/Greg Locke for The Globe and Mail)
Workers pour concrete at the Vale nickle processor construction site in Long Harbour, Placentia Bay, Nfld. Newfoundland and Labrador is facing a labour crunch as megaprojects come on-line. (Greg Locke for The Globe and Mail/Greg Locke for The Globe and Mail)

Labour shortage looms in Newfoundland and Labrador Add to ...

Rinaldo Stefan has a tough challenge as he manages construction of Vale SA’sVale SA’s sprawling, $3-billion nickel processor on Placentia Bay: finding enough skilled workers to complete the job on time and on budget.

Mr. Stefan must find 1,500 welders, electricians, plumbers and other workers by next summer, on top of the 2,000 already on the job at the site. But due to a shortage of available skilled tradespeople in Newfoundland and Labrador, Mr. Stefan is now in a mad scramble to fill the positions, placing advertisements across Atlantic Canada to entice qualified workers.

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“We are working hard to find the people we’ll need,” said the native of Romania, who has lived around the world working as a construction project manager for Vale, the global mining giant. “For the moment, we are looking in Canada, but the contingency plan will be to go offshore to find people.”

Newfoundland and Labrador is in the midst of an unprecedented energy and resources boom that is straining the province’s ability to keep up. Finding enough workers to complete some $43-billion worth of major projects under way and planned is proving to be a monumental challenge.

Workers are building the frames of nearly a dozen buildings that will house the Vale refinery, which sits on the steep, wooded shores of Long Harbour about 100 kilometres west of St. John’s. After construction winds down in 2013, the Long Harbour plant will produce 50,000 tonnes per year of nickel that Vale mines at Voisey’s Bay in Labrador. But to complete the construction phase, Vale needs to find armies of skilled workers.

Recruiting ‘from away’

Vale is not alone. Employers across the province are having trouble hiring tradespeople for new projects and other positions, even as thousands of people continue to leave home to find employment elsewhere – notably in Alberta’s oil fields – and even as Newfoundland suffers a 13.2-per-cent jobless rate.

As a result, companies are now recruiting potential employees from “away” – as far away as Ireland – for positions that aren’t being filled by local people.

“We’ve got employers at this table regularly saying to us that they’re concerned about the labour pool and they need labour,” Premier Kathy Dunderdale said in an interview at her St. John’s office.

“We know it’s a problem.”

The skills gap is a problem in other parts of Canada. Across the country – from the oil sands of Alberta to diamond mines in the North – resource companies are finding it difficult to attract workers, a shortage that threatens to play havoc with project economics by driving up labour costs and delaying construction schedules.

But deep structural problems in Newfoundland and Labrador’s labour market have led to a serious mismatch between the province’s labour force and the needs of employers.

Local unemployment

While the jobless rate remains stubbornly high, many of those listed as officially unemployed are seasonal workers in industries such as fishing and tourism. They often live in rural communities, work for a few months and then survive on unemployment insurance.

At the same time, Newfoundland and Labrador has an aging population, with the highest median age in Canada. Older workers are less willing to move to where jobs are, and less eager to shift gears and train in the skills that employers need.

Younger people have left the province in droves: the population of Newfoundland and Labrador fell by nearly 75,000 people – or 13 per cent – to 506,000 between the early 1980s and 2007. And it tended to be young adults who moved away.

Come home or stay put

One of the biggest challenges is to persuade Newfoundland’s tradespeople who have either left the province or commute to remote workplaces to either come home or stay put. The province estimates that 20,000 Newfoundlanders travel out of province for work – some 90 per cent of them are men, and half go to Alberta.

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