The Okanagan Valley construction industry has a problem.
Work began on a record-setting number of new homes in the region last year, and as demand for labour swelled, local contractors found themselves unable to find enough qualified workers to meet the demand.
Jason Henderson, the CEO of the Southern Interior Construction Association, says the effect of that shortage is rippling throughout the valley, driving up the cost of building and forcing many to wait long periods (or pay big bucks) to find contractors.
Those short-term headaches are bad, but Henderson says an even more significant worker shortage is looming just over the horizon.
So many unfilled jobs
The B.C. Construction Association estimates that by 2026 there will be 14,200 unfilled construction jobs in the province due to labour shortages.
Phil Long, a manager with Kelowna construction company Maple Reinders, points out that baby boomers have for a long time made up a significant portion of the industry.
Many of them are now retiring, and Long says “there just isn’t the workforce ready to jump in and take over.”
Part of the problem, he says, is an entire generation between the boomers and kids now leaving high school seem to have “missed construction completely” during a country-wide push to send as many young people as possible to university.
Now, the BC Construction Association estimates that only one out of every 70 high school graduates in the province goes into a construction trades program.
Labour market researchers Build Force Canada estimate that 40,500 people will retire from the construction industry by 2026, while only 33,400 will enter it.
Henderson points out that with the population in the Okanagan expected to rise significantly over the next ten years, bringing a whole lot of new building with it, that’s very bad news.
“If the economy continues to grow, and the construction boom stays steady, it’s going to get pretty ugly,” he says.
Get ready to pay more, or wait longer
Henderson says that ugliness is already beginning to show, as local contractors are being forced to turn down work thanks to a lack of manpower.
“It’s getting to the point now where a lot of (contractors) aren’t even able to bid on projects because they just don’t have the manpower to initially estimate them, or get them done,” Henderson says.
With all the building companies picking and choosing their work, Henderson says many people either have to wait a very long time to get their homes built or pay through the nose for more prompt service.
“It affects the end price that the person building the building’s going to pay. As everyone gets busier the margins go up because they can’t do it all,” Henderson says.
He says that’s leading to “an overall trend in prices starting to increase,” something that could have a “cascade effect” far beyond the construction industry.
Henderson says it could also mean more companies from outside the Okanagan coming into the region to snap up contracts, simply because local companies can’t get to them.
Get ’em while they’re young
Henderson says trade organizations are doing what they can to attract more high school graduates into the trades, but it can be a struggle.
“A lot of them (high school graduates) think of construction as a blue-collar, hardworking thing—and think they could find something a little less strenuous,” he says.
He said the industry needs to do a better job communicating how financially rewarding and emotionally satisfying a career in construction can be.
Phil Long points to programs like the Skills Ready Southern Interior Fund, which provides tools and mentoring to encourage high school kids to enter the trades; or the STEP program, which trains people to work in the trades.
Long believes these types of initiatives will steer more young people in the Okanagan towards construction-industry jobs, but that the industry still needs some short-term solutions to address the current shortage.
“There are so many baby boomers retiring, that’s going to mean a couple of generations before the industry gets back on its feet,” he says.
Immigrants could be the solution
For Long, the only feasible solution is to make it easier for new Canadians to get jobs in the construction industry.
He says there are tons of talented people in Canada, who have the skills to enter the workforce right now, but that many can’t get their professional certifications recognized here.
“The talent is there, we just have to get it recognized in Canada,” he says.
He said local companies are more than willing to hire from outside the country, especially for much-needed skilled professionals, but federal immigration laws can make that difficult.
However, he says, if the looming shortage is going to be dealt with “there’s no other choice” but to get more immigrants into the industry.
But that’s a fight that will have to take place at a national level.
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