Report highlights the labour challenges facing Ontario’s construction industry

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As the Ontario construction and maintenance sector continues to run at full tilt, warnings are becoming increasingly loud and frequent about a lack of skilled workers to meet demands, and what that means for today and in the future.

The demand is being driven by high levels of investment in public- and private sector investment, as well as residential construction. To keep pace with the activity, the industry will need to hire, train, and retain nearly 100,000 additional skilled workers, according to BuiltForce Canada’s BuildForce Canada’s 2020–2029 Construction and Maintenance Looking Forward report.

“The province is expected to experience low construction unemployment, high labour demand and high numbers of anticipated retirements across the scenario period,” says Bill Ferreira, Executive Director of BuildForce Canada. “The industry will need to remain focused on recruitment and training to meet demands for expansion and worker replacement over the coming decade.”

That’s a message that seems to be resonating with the Province, which is on a tour of Ontario colleges delivering funds for skills training. Monte McNaughton, Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, was in Kitchener recently, where he announced an investment of $9.2 million to help Conestoga College create classroom training opportunities for 6,200 apprentices in 21 trades for this year and next. That’s an increase of $1 million from last year’s funding, a boost that will help an extra 632 people prepare for jobs.

Earlier, the Province announced funding for Sheridan College in Brampton, in the amount of $559,837, to be used to provide hands-on experiences for students enrolled in pre-apprenticeship programs. The general machinist and industrial mechanic millwright pre-apprenticeship programs at the college’s Davis campus will help prepare 50 people for jobs and careers in the skilled trades.

And before that, Lambton College in Sarnia received $926,416 to boost skills training for careers in the local petrochemical, nuclear and other local sectors. The investment will go towards supporting more than 380 students in the college’s six in-class training programs, including its newly accredited construction boilermaker apprenticeship program.

“Ontario is facing a looming problem. Our skilled tradespeople are retiring faster than we can replace them. The funding for this new program will help alleviate the strain our trades sector is experiencing,” McNaughton said in Sarnia.

The BuildForce Canada’s report reveals that demand for skilled workers in the non-residential sector demand will create two unique labour market peaks, the first this year and the second in 2026. It expects construction employment to rise by just over 23,000 workers by 2026, before receding by close to 13,600 workers as major projects wind down.

Major construction projects are driving the labour market peaks, with public transportation projects, institutional building construction and modernization, and overlapping demands from two major nuclear refurbishment projects in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and Southwestern Ontario, behind the current spike.

Other factors driving the need for skilled workers include subway expansions and regional rail electrification projects in the GTA, as well as numerous large hospital projects, all of which is anticipated to push up demand for key trades in 2024/25.

“Non-residential market pressures are expected to persist to the 2026 peak, driven by ongoing and significant investments in public infrastructure … the non-residential labour force is expected to expand by more than 7,000 workers by 2029,” says the report.

While the housing sector softened in 2019, an upswing in new-home sales suggest a rebound. Renovations to existing homes are also expected to add pressure on the labour market, with total residential employment projected to rise by 8,900 workers through 2026, before easing over the rest of the scenario period. It’s anticipated that the residential labour force will increase by nearly 7,300 workers by 2029.

“Competing demands across Ontario’s five regions – Central, Eastern, GTA, Northern and Southwestern – are likely to limit the potential for intra-provincial labour mobility to meet peak project requirements, which draw on many of the same trades and occupations,” says Ferreira.

“Though interconnected, however, each region presents a unique labour market narrative.”

So, how does it break down across the province? Here are some specifics:

  • Southwestern Ontario: It’s expected that this region of the province will see the largest relative increase in growth in 2020, powered by the refurbishment work at the Bruce Power nuclear plant, the Gordie Howe International Bridge in Windsor, and the Nova Chemicals plant in Sarnia. Non-residential employment is expected to rise a further 1,400 workers in 2020, or six per cent from 2019, following an increase of close to 2,500 workers in 2019.
  • The GTA: The region will likely need an additional 3,700 workers to meet demands in 2020, fuelled by major project requirements related to the Eglinton, Hurontario, and Finch (LRT) projects, as well as ongoing work at the Ontario Power Generation Darlington nuclear refurbishment project. These and other projects will drive labour needs to another 19,400 workers by 2026, a 12 per cent increase over 2019.
  • Eastern Ontario: Ongoing redevelopment of Parliament Hill’s Centre Block and other federal buildings, phase two of the Ottawa LRT, new hospital projects, and the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) research and development complex in Chalk River, will push demands for skilled labour to an additional 3,400 workers needed by 2024, or a seven per cent increase over 2019.
  • Northern Ontario: There are significant near-term demands in this region, propelled by mining, mineral-processing, and large-scale transmission infrastructure investments, meaning that employment is projected to rise by close to 2,100 workers by 2021, a nine per cent increase over 2019, before declining to 2024.
  • Central Ontario: This region, says the report, is benefiting from the spillover of expansion in the GTA. Modest growth across residential and non-residential sectors should increase labour force requirements by 2,900 workers over the decade.

While touring Ontario colleges with the government’s investment announcements, McNaughton points out that one reality pushing the labour shortage is the anticipated retirement of tradespeople. The report backs this up, showing that 86,300 workers, 21 per cent of the current labour force, will be retired by 2029.

“The industry can potentially draw 78,900 new entrants aged 30 and younger from the local population, but a projected gap of close to 21,800 workers will still need to be met,” says the report, which adds that it takes years to train the tradespeople needed by the construction industry. That effort often involves the participation of the province in apprenticeship programs. Between 2013 and 2019, nearly 69,580 apprentices were registered in the province’s 24 largest construction trade programs, with 41,852 completions reported during this period.

“Building a sustainable labour force will also require the construction and maintenance industry to increase recruitment from groups traditionally underrepresented in the current construction labour force, including women, Indigenous Canadians, and new Canadians,” says the report,

“Of the 394,600 tradespeople employed in the industry, women made up only 3.8 per cent. Similarly, Indigenous Canadians accounted for approximately 2.7 per cent of the province’s total construction labour force … increasing the participation rate of both these groups would go a long way to help the industry address future labour force needs.”

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