Residential construction industry will require 148,000 skilled workers as retirements loom

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By John Devine

Special to Ontario Construction News

If opportunity does indeed come from necessity, then the looming retirements that will leave the housing industry critically short of skilled workers is good news for young people looking for rewarding and productive careers in the trades.

According to BuildForce Canada’s Forecast Summery Reports, the residential construction industry will require about 148,000 skilled workers over the next ten years to replace workers who are set to move into their retirement years, at a time when there are increasing demands for new home construction and renovation.

It’s expected that in the coming years more than 134,000 skilled tradespeople will retire, a significant challenge for the housing industry to meet, says Kevin Lee, Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association.

“One of the things we are seeing right now is a lot of activity in new construction, housing as well as renovation. It is expected to be something that will continue for quite some time … as the baby boomers retire, pretty much every sector is looking to the future and going, ‘wow we are going to have a skilled worker shortage.’ It’s no different in residential construction.”

That reality, while daunting, opens the door to introducing young people to a career in the trades, especially young women who, numbers show, have not pursued that direction in the past.

“Historically, construction has certainly had a higher percentage of men than women. These days, it’s probably around 18 per cent overall in terms of women as part of the workforce, with the majority tending to be more offsite, but still involved in construction, working in management or an office environment,” says Lee.

“The good news is that we are seeing growing numbers for the past few years … and certainly when we look at the opportunities ahead and the need for more workers, it would be great if we could get more women interested in the housing sector.”

The association, he adds, is putting a lot of effort into attracting young faces to the trades, working with governments on such endeavours. Initiatives include funding in the 2021 federal budget to create jobs, including new opportunities for skilled tradespeople. The program, says Lee, encourages apprenticeships overall, but also targets various groups, including women.

“The skilled trades are vital to our economy, and apprenticeships are the bridge that help skilled workers, especially young people starting their careers, connect with businesses and find well-paying jobs,” reads the document.

The association, continues Lee, also engages social media to illustrate women working “on the job” and related activities, such as women in construction councils of local associations.

“Many local associations are working with community colleges in general, and through that process trying to encourage more young women to get into the construction industry.”

So, what type of jobs are on offer for a new generation of skilled workers? Lee says that in addition to the more obvious skilled occupations, there are opportunities on the leadership and management side, sales and marketing, graphics, architectural design, and a range of others.

“And with the emphasis on climate change, the government has just announced a new program to get more energy advisors into the industry … people who go and access and do energy evaluations in homes,” he says.

“Whatever you want to do as a career, there is probably a version of that in residential construction, and it can be very rewarding.”

The industry is not only battling a numbers game when it comes to replacing all those retiring tradespeople, and finding additional ones to meet rising demands, it is also dealing with a lingering societal bias against the trades in favour of careers in the professions. It’s a tough nut to crack, admit Lee.

“Obviously,  we need people who want to pursue university-type careers, and quite frankly doing that can also lead to jobs in residential construction as well. But the idea … that a trade isn’t a rewarding career, isn’t going to pay as much, is simply not true, especially now,” he says.

“It’s a great opportunity to not only be successful and get a well-paying job, if you are entrepreneurial and want to run your own company, it’s a great field.”

The industry, he continues, is made up of a lot of smaller businesses whose owners might not have realized when they got into the trades that they wanted to run their own show, being their own bosses and job creators.

“You find there are lots of opportunities to work for great companies, large and small, but there are also lots of opportunities to head out on your own and run your own business … a lot of opportunities for those who are entrepreneurial.”

Not fixing the pending shortage in skilled workers means higher labour costs for employers, and slowdowns in projects. Addressing the shortfall is critical, but as well as presenting opportunities for young people, it’s also driving the industry to increase productivity through automation and other approaches to housing.

“At the CHBA we have a modular-construction council that is really focused on advancing the factory-built side of things, and we continue to move that forward. Some people might think building a house means only working in outdoor conditions, but there are a lot of jobs now working on the factory-built side.”

Government programs like the aforementioned one are key contributors to training more skilled workers, and enticing more young people to get involved in the trades, says Lee.

“It’s critical for the future, and our industry is seized with providing jobs to people who are looking to move forward. On the government side, it’s important to break some of that bias against those types of jobs, so governments have a role there in helping to change the perception, and provide financial support to the apprenticeship system. Governments have been stepping up, so that is good.”

Another important role for the federal government, ays Lee, is ensuring the immigration system is structured to meet the needs of various sectors of the economy, including the residential construction industry, by bringing skilled workers into the country that, along with enticing young people to the trades, will help fill the gap in skilled workers.

The association works with BuildForce Canada to have access to forecasting data that helps with strategic thinking and direction.

“And from there, we work with governments extensively, talking about the need to encourage people to get into the skilled trade, ensuring there is funding to support skilled trades, ensuring that the immigration system reflects the need for more skilled workers … those are the really important pieces that we have been working on.”

When asked how he would pitch a career in the trades to a group of teenagers, Lee said he would highlight the pride one would feel pointing to a structure he or she had a hand in building.

“It’s such a rewarding feeling to drive or walk by a place and be able to say, ‘hey, I helped build that.’ There’s that real sense of building something important to the community. And, if you are someone who likes working with your hands, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience.”

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