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The Delta Spirit Lodge cruise ship has sailed to Kitimat to house temporary workers upgrading Rio Tinto Alcan’s smelter.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The cruise ship Delta Spirit Lodge slipped into Kitimat's port early in March. Later this month, hundreds of construction workers will move aboard, helping to alleviate a housing crunch created by the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter upgrade, which will see 3,000 construction workers on site by this summer.

The leased ship has 450 berths for some of Rio Tinto's workers – and with only one person per room, it could make for a comfortable floating work camp. The 170-metre ship, which previously sailed the Baltic Sea under the name Silja Festival, was brought in at a cost of at least $4-million.

This kind of portable accommodation may be in demand on the B.C. coast in the next few years.

Story continues below advertisement

The province is expecting a construction boom, with dozens of major projects slated to break ground in the coming decade. While the focus now is on training skilled labour, investors are also calculating how to attract and retain skilled workers in a competitive market.

It's not just a question of wages, but the quality of life in the work camp. It means the days of flimsy plywood shacks and shared bathrooms are disappearing.

B.C. Hydro will need to drum up a construction crew of 1,700 if it gets the green light for the Site C dam. It has told bidders for its work camps, to be set up on Fort St. John's doorstep, to aim for comfort. "The quality of the worker accommodation is a key component of the project's labour strategy to attract and retain workers in what is expected to be a period of high demand for skilled workers."

For those with the in-demand skills, it will be a rich opportunity, predicts Philip Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C.

The province is spending much of its effort on improving its apprenticeship program, and reaching out to high school students and First Nations communities to attract recruits. The goal is to build up a mobile work force with the skills to transfer from a pipeline project to a new mine, and then perhaps a liquefied natural gas plant. Mr. Hochstein predicts attracting newcomers to the construction industry will not be the biggest recruitment challenge. "Young people are young – they are not stupid," he said. "When the major projects happen up in the North and they hear about the wages and benefits, that will attract a lot of people into the industry."

But persuading established journeymen to leave the comforts of home and family to sign up for jobs where they fly in to the job site for weeks at a stretch will be tougher, he warns. "They are going to have to pay them a lot of money, and have the best camps in the world – single rooms, WiFi, flat-screen TVs, great food, recreational facilities. [The camps] will be almost luxurious."

That means planning ahead to build the infrastructure – especially in locations where cruise ships aren't an option.

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