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Employees work on an Airbus A220-300, at a facility in Mirabel, Que., on Feb. 20, 2020.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

Canadian aerospace firms are struggling to hire back workers to meet resurgent travel demand in the latest evidence of a postpandemic labour crunch, industry executives said.

The squeeze has emerged as a warning signal for aviation’s recovery internationally and accelerates a shift in the work force toward fast-growth sectors such as electric vehicles, they said.

As suppliers in the aerospace-making hub of Quebec return to hiring mode, several interviewed by Reuters said they feared the exodus of talent could get more acute with an aging work force and some training programs facing lower enrolment.

“Some companies are growing faster, others slower. But everyone is looking for workers,” said Suzanne Benoît, president of Quebec aerospace trade group Aéro Montréal.

Canada’s flagship business-jet maker Bombardier Inc. is experiencing a “competitive job market” as it goes back to recruiting, a spokeswoman said.

Aerospace joins a list of sectors facing challenges to adjust to the sudden revving up of the North American economy.

In the United States, statistics showing lower employment in manufacturing have raised concerns about supply constraints.

And in Canada, where lockdowns stayed in place longer, economists are predicting a rush of hiring in June.

Demand could push wages up for workers in popular categories such as machinists, although some suppliers are also recruiting skilled immigrants from Mexico, Tunisia and Morocco.

Montreal, the world’s third-largest aerospace centre, fears a delay in its economic recovery if jobs can’t be filled.

“The risk … is that we won’t have enough workers to carry out contracts so we will have to refuse contracts,” Ms. Benoît said.

Nancy Venneman, president of engineering firm Altitude Aerospace Canada, said pressure could pile up further in the fall when customer projects such as product upgrades and aircraft modifications delayed by the pandemic return.

Aerospace was one of the world industries worst-hit by the pandemic as traffic plummeted in 2020, grounding fleets. But it has set ambitious plans to restore output in coming years.

Some suppliers for Europe’s Airbus have warned they may struggle to meet production goals.

Boeing Co. has warned of supply constraints after a “more robust” recovery than expected.

And this week, American Airlines cancelled 1 per cent of its July flights amid a labour shortage at some hubs.

Aerospace and defence companies announced 115,089 job cuts for the U.S. market from March, 2020, to May, 2021, compared with 18,337 announced in 2018 and 2019 combined, according to global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

SECTOR COMPETITION

Mario Sévigny, co-founder of MSB Group, which produces components for private jetmakers such as Bombardier and General Dynamics Corp.’s Gulfstream, said it would take six to nine months to meet a potential production increase due to scarce labour.

While a Canadian program protected some jobs by defraying part of workers’ salaries, it didn’t cover the entire amount that led to layoffs. Some local employers such as a unit of Airbus SE criticized the level of support from Ottawa.

The Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC), which accounts for more than 95 per cent of aerospace activity in Canada, said more than half its members had to lay off employees.

Aerospace is, meanwhile, competing for young workers with fast-rising industries such as electric transport.

The average age of an aerospace manufacturing worker in Canada is 54, according to AIAC.

The École nationale d’aérotechnique, Quebec’s largest aeronautics college, which offers training in fields such as aviation maintenance, said registrations in its three-year programs aimed largely at recent high-school graduates dropped 20 per cent for the fall 2021 session.

While aerospace has faced previous crises, the duration of COVID-19′s impact has driven workers elsewhere, Ms. Benoît said.

Some went to transport companies that make electric buses, such as fast-growing Lion Electric Co. and Nova Bus, a division of Sweden’s Volvo Group.

Hugue Meloche, chief executive of components maker Meloche Group, which supplies the locally produced Airbus A220 jet, needs to hire about 70 people a year over five years.

“We are losing a lot of workers who are going to other sectors that weren’t affected by the pandemic,” he said.

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