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The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in job losses for the construction industry.

Kwangmoozaa/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Like so many other sectors, the trades are not immune from the wave of baby boomers set to retire in the coming decade, adding urgency to the recruitment of younger and underrepresented people, those in construction say.

“By 2029, we will be short about 100,000 tradespeople if we don’t do anything,” says Kieran Hawe, chief operating officer of construction services company EllisDon Corp. The concern for the Mississauga-based company is that this could slow down projects and increase costs.

While the pandemic has resulted in a short-term slowdown and job losses for the construction industry, the long-term outlook will be largely affected by the retiring generation, industry insiders say; this will require efforts to recruit new blood to the skilled trades.

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The big picture

“The 2020 numbers are way off,” says Bill Ferreira, executive director at BuildForce Canada, which provides labour market information and programs for the construction work force.

However, “long-term trends haven’t been dramatically impacted by COVID,” he adds.

The organization is still compiling data from the previous year, but the long-term trends in its 2020-2029 Construction and Maintenance Looking Forward national report likely still hold, Mr. Ferreira says.

In its update report from July, BuildForce anticipated that more than 257,000 construction workers will retire by 2029, and even accounting for modest post-COVID-19 growth and anticipating the entry of young workers joining the industry, the organization anticipates a shortfall of nearly 82,000 workers by 2029.

“The full recovery of the construction industry will depend on a number of factors,” the organization’s interim report states. These include: the speed at which effective treatment for COVID-19 is developed and made available; how quickly the economies of Canada’s trading partners recover from the pandemic; consumer confidence; government response in energizing the economy through infrastructure and other stimulus funding and policies; the prices of global commodities, including energy; and the ability of the global supply chain to provide construction materials, building components and equipment.

“The underlying demands in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Nova Scotia are still there, and a rebound in non-residential construction should still hold,” Mr. Ferreira says.

However, “some segments of non-residential investment are expected to remain muted over the short term, particularly heavy-industrial construction, industrial-building construction and commercial construction. Institutional and civil construction are anticipated to remain strong,” the interim report says.

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There are also regional differences.

“In 2014-2015, when oil prices collapsed, it became a different story in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador,” says Pedro Antunes, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada.

In terms of the skilled trades, he says, “going into 2019 … there were signs we were starting to hit inflationary pressures in some aspects of that construction occupation and skillset.”

He adds, “The higher the skill, typically the older the cohort,” in occupations such as carpenters, painters and especially crane operators. “We will see an acceleration in retirements in the next decade.”

The view from the trades

From a trades unions perspective, the concern is more around overall employment in the industry, rather than specifically a trades shortage. “Right now, construction jobs are down about 10 per cent, compared with before COVID,” says Sean Strickland, executive director of Canada’s Building Trades Unions.

It varies across the country, with Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador hit hard because of the downturn in the oil and gas industry, with about 50 per cent fewer construction jobs.

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In Ontario and Quebec, despite some slowdowns, work has not dropped off much, Mr. Strickland says, and in certain markets, there is still high demand for some trades, including the finishing trades, such as drywallers in Toronto.

With the private sector hesitant about investment in an uncertain climate, the trades union association is hoping the government will stimulate the economy with infrastructure investments.

“In construction, it is hard to predict future demand for labour,” Mr. Strickland says. “Projects and investment start and stop.”

In the long term, however, “we need to bring more young people into the trades.”

He adds, “The challenge is training the right amount of work force for the right [number] of jobs. … We need much more sophisticated labour market tracking to match supply and demand.”

Construction slowdowns

EllisDon is forecasting the industry being short roughly 100,000 tradespeople in 10 years, Mr. Hawe says.

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“If you can’t get the people, the prices go up and the schedules slow down,” says Geoff Smith, the company’s chief executive officer.

This comes at a time when “our clients are expecting their products to be built faster, better, cheaper,” Mr. Hawe says.

“Some trades are suffering more than others,” Mr. Hawe notes. For instance, the company sees shortages today among people who lay rebar (reinforcing steel bars added to strengthen concrete) and who pour concrete.

In terms of a potential shortage, “we are talking about the major centres … primarily Toronto and Vancouver,” Mr. Smith adds.

The industry is attempting to counteract the potential shortage with a number of initiatives.

“There is a lot of effort in high schools to change young people’s mindsets” and see career opportunity in the trades, Mr. Smith says.

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The company is working with initiatives such as Build a Dream, educating girls about non-traditional career paths. This includes giving them the opportunity to try welding in workshops, or to understand what it is like to place rebar.

Changing methods

Technological and automation advancements may be attractive to a younger generation, says Regina Marklund, interiors division manager out of the Vancouver office of North American construction company Turner Construction Co.

For instance, with virtual design, parts such as walls or entire pre-stacked rooms can be prefabricated in a controlled warehouse environment and assembled onsite.

“I have seen prefabricated bathroom pods craned in and put into place.”

This can make the construction environment cleaner and can mean working in a heated warehouse longer and spending less time on a construction site, which may be more attractive for those working in the trades.

“It’s a way to get the younger generation excited,” she adds.

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Turner has operations in Canada and the United States, and in terms of engaging underrepresented groups, Ms. Marklund sees a stronger trend in America than in Canada for clients to require hiring businesses owned by minorities, women or people with disabilities. Some public Canadian clients are looking to include opportunities for Indigenous people, she adds.

While the longer-term outlook for the construction industry, like much of the postpandemic landscape, is filled with uncertainties, those wanting a career in the trades seem certain they will find opportunity there.

Meanwhile, colleges with construction trades and apprenticeship programs, such as Conestoga College in southwestern Ontario, say they expect the numbers of students interested in pursuing careers in the trades to remain steady.

“[We] continue to see strong enrollment in the construction trades in both apprenticeship and postsecondary programming,” says Suzanne Moyer, chair of trades and apprenticeship at the college’s Waterloo campus.

“The college has not seen any significant impact on our registrations in the construction trades as a result of the pandemic.”

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