Todd Clyde is the chief executive officer of Blue Branch, an organization helping Canadian employers find skilled labour.
Canada has a housing crisis the federal budget is trying to solve, but there is giant hole in the middle of the plan: labourers.
The federal budget, released last week, offers important solutions for a complex housing affordability crisis – getting municipalities to change their zoning and permitting systems, spending more on affordable housing units, and banning foreign buyers for the next two years. These are important steps, but they can only be successful if Canada solves our labour crisis first.
Ontario’s Housing Affordability Task Force wants the province to build 1.5 million new homes in the next 10 years. But who is going to build them? There are those who have blamed COVID-19 stimulus spending for the inability to find workers, but the truth is a regional, mismatched work force was a problem long before the pandemic.
Ontario’s construction industry alone reported 13,000 unfilled jobs in 2019. Imagine how many homes could have been built had skilled labourers been available. What if I told you that they were right here in Canada all along, just not in the right place at the right time?
In 2019, more than 12,000 skilled workers lost their jobs in Alberta, but these workers were not connected to work opportunities that matched their unique abilities. Yes, travelling to Ontario from Alberta is quite the commute, but this kind of labour mobility – or supercommuting as some are now calling it – is nothing new. For years, it was totally normal for thousands of workers from Canada’s Atlantic provinces, where unemployment was high, to fly to Northern Alberta to work in the oil sands.
In recent years, Canada’s labour demand has shifted to the manufacturing and construction sectors in rural parts of Ontario. Based on our research, Blue Branch anticipates that as governments and the market adjust to a disrupted global supply chain by investing in domestic manufacturing and regional development, supercommuting will help address the labour shortage. Now is the time for innovative labour mobility solutions that match workers from Canadian regions experiencing high unemployment to jobs in the areas with labour shortages. This is how we can keep our talent and their positive economic effect inside Canada.
The federal budget did include a nod in this direction. The new labour mobility deduction for eligible tradespersons and apprentices would provide tax recognition for up to $4,000 a year in eligible travel and temporary relocation expenses. That’s a start, but it’ll take a lot more to solve this problem.
When done properly, supercommuting is only temporary. The goal can and should be to get skilled labour to see themselves as part of their new community, and to help them relocate there permanently. It helps with domestic business retention, as access to labour helps stop companies from offshoring. It also improves worker health and safety by reducing labour shortages, which can lead to burned out workers doing overtime to meet production targets, which risks workplace accidents. And at a macro level, more people filling jobs expands our GDP.
Our research shows that as many as 32 per cent of unemployed Canadians are willing to supercommute or move to another province for work. They just need help overcoming the hurdles, including housing and transportation, to get there.
And that’s where the housing crisis and the labour crisis compound one another. You can’t build more houses without more labour. But to get more labour, they need housing. In the regions where we operate, underutilized Airbnbs and furnished apartments are in high demand for our mobile work force. The local economy benefits from the rents while labourers build new housing and settle into a new community. We also help facilitate local transportation through ride-sharing programs to get incoming workers to and from their jobs.
Ultimately, to get people to supercommute, the conditions must be right. They need housing and transportation, and to be able to see themselves as part of the community to which they are supercommuting. The government can and should do more to incentivize Canadians to move within the country to fill labour shortages. In the meantime, we are filling in the gaps helping to match skilled workers to jobs where labour shortages prevent growth.
The federal budget accurately identifies a housing affordability crisis in Canada, but underpinning it is a mismatched labour crisis that deserves more government attention. Supercommuting will be an important tool for fulfilling the evolving talent needs of employers, and especially home builders, if the Liberal’s budget commitments are to be successful.
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