The construction industry — across the western world, not just on the Island — has for years been bracing for impending skills shortages. An aging workforce of baby boomers, who make up the python’s belly of the industry’s workforce, is entering retirement. As the boomers leave the industry, the received wisdom holds, there won’t be enough qualified newcomers to take their places.
Some Island companies are already noticing a shortage of skilled workers. Others aren’t in a crunch yet, mainly because the industry still hasn’t fully recovered from the lingering recession that began in mid 2008.
Island-wide, the construction industry employed 29,500 people in 2014. That was down 8.1 per cent from 2013, according to a recent quarterly report of the Vancouver Island Construction Association (VICA). In metro Victoria, industry employment tallied 12,100 in 2014, a 7.8 per cent drop from 2013.
“So since 2008, we’ve kind of been in this perfect storm of a really poor economy,” says Greg Baynton, VICA’s CEO. “Not the economic environment to be investing in training and hiring people, and not even the work there to do it, even if you wanted to do it.”
Contributing to the storm, he says, has been an educational focus on white-collar professions plus problems in training at the high-school level.
VICA’s parent organization, the B.C. Construction Association (BCCA), is undertaking initiatives to address that. Among them is its Skilled Trades Employment Program (STEP). Since 2006, STEP has placed 9,000 workers in entry-level trades positions, says Abigail Fulton, BCCA vice-president. About one quarter of them are Island jobs, she estimates.
One thing John Knappett of Knappett Projects has observed is that “the age of people going into the trades is probably a few years older than it was traditionally.”
Much of the shift away from high-school grads entering trades is blamed on the decline in high-school shop classes, which the BCCA is trying to rectify. About a year ago, it asked B.C. schools what they needed to bring shop classes up to snuff. The “ask” totalled about $9 million. So far, the association has raised $2 million from industry, employers and government, Fulton says.
Meanwhile, the Island local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has boosted its apprentice ranks to 300, compared with historical numbers of 65 to 80, says local 230 business manager Philip Venoit, also president of the Vancouver Island Building and Construction Trades Council. Apprentices now make up 20 per cent of the local’s 1,500 members.
On a whole, though, Venoit uses the word “chaos” to describe how the industry is approaching training and recruitment.
“Businesses know what their needs are today,” Venoit says. “They don’t really take an in-depth analysis of what their needs are going to be a decade from now or half a decade from now.”