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Electrician Megan Kinch in Toronto, on Sept. 30.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Like a growing number of tradespeople working in the Toronto-area’s overheated construction sector, Megan Kinch, a journeyman electrician, builds homes she’ll probably never be able to afford to buy. “It’s demoralizing,” said the eight-year veteran, who also writes about labour issues. She rents, and is “renovicted” every few years.

In fact, Ms. Kinch works with an apprentice electrician who recently moved into her car because she couldn’t afford rents in the city while earning a trainee’s hourly wages. As Ms. Kinch says, “I’ve just resigned myself to being like a New Yorker.”

From home renovators to developers, most people who’ve engaged with contractors in the Greater Toronto Area know that the competition for 140 distinct categories of skilled trades and labourers has become increasingly fraught. Residential design/build projects can now take more than two years to complete because trades are so overbooked. This dynamic went into overdrive during the pandemic when many older workers decided to retire, immigration flows fell to historic lows because of restrictions on travel and the training of new skilled workers slowed sharply.

Although demand for construction workers is robust and unemployment levels are at almost historic lows, there’s another side of this story, which is that the individuals who will literally build the homes and apartments that are in such short supply are themselves facing housing challenges, and, in some cases, moving further and further away in search of a house – a cycle that ratchets up the cost-of-living of workers who almost inevitably drive to work-sites. Moreover, the outflow of Ontarians moving to other provinces, especially Alberta, has reached record highs.

The even larger question looming over this sector is whether there will be enough trades people to build the 1.5 million homes that the Ford government says are needed in the province in the next decade.

In an interview, Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton says the province needs 100,000 construction workers in all sectors – residential, infrastructure, commercial – over the next several years. “It’s all hands on deck to resolve the labour shortages,” Mr. McNaughton said.

The government has stepped up its recruiting, changed the rules governing apprenticeships and is working with Ottawa to remove barriers associated with immigration, such as credential recognition. Mr. McNaughton says he’s confident that labour gap can be overcome.

But some industry players aren’t so confident. “We do not have the construction labour force to achieve that target [1.5 million homes] on the housing side,” says Michael Collins-Williams, chief executive officer of the West End Home Builders Association, citing the competition between the housing sector and large non-residential projects, such as transit or school construction. “This is a growing problem.”

Others agree: “I’ve been in this business for decades and I’ve never seen the set of circumstances we have now,” says Richard Lyall, who heads the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (Rescon). He notes that certain trades – concrete formers, drain installers, house framers and bricklayers – are seeing acute shortages, and adds that younger tradespeople, lacking the experience of 30-year veterans, don’t work as productively. “All the balls are up in the air.”

In fact, while some trades, such as carpenters, have substantially expanded their recruitment, training and apprenticeship programs in recent years, the output still falls short of demand. “There’s a shortage in residential [construction] for sure,” says Cristina Selva, executive director of the College of Carpenters and Allied Trades, who adds that the organization has tripled its training capacity in recent years and now graduates about 5,000 carpenters annually. Most, however, end up working in the commercial/industrial sectors, not residential.

According to BuildForce Canada, an industry group that tracks workforce trends, Canada’s 1.2 million-person construction sector will be 29,000 workers short by 2027, with the residential portion, which accounts for about half of all jobs, facing “significant labour force pressures.” The group projects that Ontario in particular faces a “recruitment gap” of almost 19,000 skilled trades, everyone from electricians and carpenters to pipe fitters and masons.

However, the projections are far more daunting for the GTA, BuildForce says. “Maintaining labour force capacity to keep pace with increased construction demands while grappling with the anticipated retirement of almost 26,000 workers or 15 per cent of the current labour force over the next six years, will require the industry to actively promote and recruit an estimated 36,600 additional workers throughout the forecast period.”

Bill Ferreira, the organization’s executive director, adds that those 2022-2027 projections don’t account for the Ontario government’s accelerated housing construction goals, and admits that meeting the target will be “challenging.” “We can’t just rely on domestic recruitment.”

Mr. Lyall agrees: “The immigration side is critical.” He and others acknowledge that the province is in a global chase for skilled trades people. ”Ontario is in competition with every other place,” Mr. Collins-Williams says. But Mr. McNaughton says the province is pitching newcomers by stressing Ontario’s tolerance, its worker health and safety rules and fast-tracking the recognition of foreign credentials.

However, increased immigration isn’t the only solution to what ails the construction sector. Historically, women and visible minorities have been significantly under-represented in these professions, even in comparison to other traditional white and male-oriented vocations, such as policing. For example, women make up less than 5 per cent of the construction labour force, while accounting for about a quarter of Toronto’s police service.

Canada needs 5.8 million new homes by 2030 to bring prices down to affordable levels, CMHC says

Ms. Kinch says the absence of childcare, as well as persistent discrimination, represent major recruitment obstacles. The pandemic was “a disaster” for women tradespeople. “It’s really not okay.” She adds that the older and more established trades people, who own homes and are earning six-figure incomes, don’t understand the pressures facing those trying to get in to these professions.

The other roadblock, of course, is that it wasn’t in the skilled trades unions interest to expand the construction labour pool. For years, for example, collective agreements with builders limited number of apprentices to one for every four journeymen tradespeople. Apprentices have to work for anywhere from two to five years at wages that run from the low $20 an hour range to the mid-$30 an hour range, depending on the vocation. (Mr. McNaughton says the government has initiated a program to subsidize apprenticeships by to up $17,000 a year.)

That ratio, in effect, served as a throttle, limiting new workers from entering into the trades, even as the existing workforce approached what Ms. Selva describes as a “demographic cliff.” The government has pushed to change the ratio to one apprentice for every journeymen, but, as Ms. Selva points out, the growing ranks of younger construction workers and the thinning contingent of experienced ones means that thorough training is even more important.

Ms. Kinch, however, says apprenticeships are still difficult to secure, which means that students emerge from training programs and then have to tough it out for years in order to make the leap into the ranks of a fully certified and unionized trades person.

Even then, she adds, trade wages haven’t kept up with inflation, which means that some workers are looking for work outside residential construction, e.g., on movie sets. “If you’re working all the time,” she says, “you might look to film and say like, well, I can work downtown, they have a shuttle that’s going to take me to my work and they’re providing meals.”