The skilled trade shortage situation that has been brewing for several years throughout Canada and in Alberta is now a specific, close-to-home concern for Calgary’s rebounding residential homebuilding and commercial construction industry.
Although the shortage reasons are complex and varied, the skilled trade vacuum is impacting (particularly Calgary) housing starts with a lack of vital and basic trades like carpenters, framers, electricians, plumbers, drywallers and roofers.
While the Calgary downturn did have an effect, the skilled trade shortage is by no means unique to Alberta or Calgary. It’s an unfortunate perfect storm of education and workplace trends, the stereotyped and generational perception about blue-collar work, and the potent draw of technology and other careers.
And there’s the predicted factor of aging; the generational shift as experienced baby boomers in the trades are retiring and increasingly hard to replace.
Some caution the focus on popular technology careers downplays the vital value of skilled trades.
“Construction is a wonderful industry that provides exceptional career opportunities to youth, women and Canada’s indigenous communities,” says Bill Ferreira, executive director, BuildForce Canada, the national industry-led organization committed to working directly with the construction industry to provide information and resources to assist with the management of its workforce requirements.
“Overcoming perceptions and stereotypes is certainly not unique to the construction sector, but it is a challenge the industry faces. Clearly, there is significant competition from other industries with similar skill requirements, and in the future, the competition will increase.
“Over the coming decade, recruiting challenges may arise within Canada’s residential construction workforce as an estimated 120,000 workers – or 21 per cent of the current workforce – is expected to exit the industry through retirements,” he warns. “Recruiting and retaining qualified workers has been and remains a high priority for the industry.”
According to Skills Canada, the Canadian non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of skilled trades, an estimated one million skilled trade workers will be needed by 2020.
The Alberta Apprenticeship and Industry Training Board (AITB) warns that, last year, about 13,000 new apprentices registered to learn a trade, which is down sharply from the 17,200 who joined the program in 2015, and the lowest number in more than 10 years.
“Construction trades with an older workforce may experience tighter labour markets over the coming decade,” Ferreira adds. “Particularly trades like homebuilding and renovation managers, plumbers, construction managers, construction estimators and bricklayers.”
Some builders suggest the skilled trade gap may be a consequence of recent boom times, especially in the Calgary area. “Shortages experienced by the homebuilding industry are entirely due to a buoyant and rebounding housing market which has simply compounded trade absences caused by weaker markets in 2015 and 2016,” says Brett Friesen, general manager of community development with Calgary’s Hopewell Residential, and a BILD Calgary Region member.
“These shortages have affected trades across the spectrum, and may not be confined to any one trade group or age bracket. We maintain strong industry relationships with technical and trade-focused post-secondary institutions like SAIT, where enrolment in trade programs has remained relatively consistent.”
There is broad industry consensus that one key to dealing with the residential and commercial skilled trade vacuum is not looking back about what happened and why, but looking forward to what to do about it.
As builders and developers strategize, plan and deal with the situation, the focus is on vital and timely-skilled trade training.
In Canada’s contemporary workforce, the average age of a tradesperson is 40 to 50, which is much higher than in the 1980s, when the average age of trades was 36. Builders, the industry, the ministry and trade schools are concerned that, despite the various trade shortage warnings, there is not enough emphasis on promoting skilled-trades training.
The AITB points out that it takes three to four years to develop effectively-trained and job-ready skilled tradespeople and it’s important not to be short-sighted about the skilled labour force that is, and will be, needed. The AITB urges that now is the time for employers to employ apprentices and give them opportunities to work as much as they can.
According to Scott MacPherson, dean of the SAIT School of Construction, “One of our core values in the School of Construction is ‘elevating perceptions’ – enhancing the value of careers in construction through our learners and graduates. The construction industry is evolving with the introduction of new technologies, a focus on becoming more efficient, a dedication to safety, and a dedication to providing a more inclusive workforce.
“With the changes in the industry, the role of a tradesperson has also evolved. Our graduates are required to be more technically trained, to adhere to safety practices and we’re seeing a more diverse group of students in our trades. There is a higher level of engagement in the classroom when they’re challenged with the opportunity to build something.”
“We know there is a challenge with getting skilled trades, and we are working together to promote careers in construction and building a career in the trades,” explains Chris Bardell, chair of the Calgary Construction Association (CCA). “We have a very good relationship with SAIT to bring new students into the apprenticeship program and CCA’s Education Fund partners with SAIT to provide scholarships to help promote student interest about getting into trades.”
He points out a practical and real stereotyping problem. “A major challenge is perception, often by parents, that trades are a lesser career path for their kids. The CCA is currently looking at targeting parents about their kids considering a career in construction. The reality is that parents push their kids in the professional career direction to become doctors, lawyers and engineers.”
“It’s often overlooked that trades are an entry point into an industry,” says Bill Black, VP of business development with CCA. “The growth path over a 40-year career can literally take you from the broom to the boardroom, from working as a labourer to being the CEO of the company.”
“As the construction industry continues to age,” Ferreira points out, “industry stakeholders will need to find alternative sources of labour to fill the gap of retiring workers, better promote career opportunities to under-represented groups and find ways to engage millennials into a meaningful career in construction.”
“SAIT has been a leader in applied learning for a hundred years; we’ve seen the ebbs and flows,” MacPherson emphasizes. “We strongly value the relationships with our industry stakeholders and they continue to step up in numerous ways, such as providing student awards, offering field trips to construction sites, offering internships, coming on campus for lunch-and-learns, networking events and more.
“The more involved the industry is with our programs the more value students see in their education.”
Ferreira urges, “The industry must adapt to changing preferences of the youth population, making the industry more attractive to them. Focusing on training and mentorship programs as a tool for skills transfer is important.
“Adopting measures to ensure that the construction workplace is respectful, safe and flexible to the needs of millennials is important and overcoming the outdated views many have about the construction sector is critical.”
“Recent trade shortages have created some delays but our industry has been able to work around them with scheduling adjustments. Whether the market strength of 2017 will carry over to 2018, we are optimistic that increased buyer confidence will continue,” Friesen says with positivity.