Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Grappling with B.C.’s skills gap

More than 150,000 skilled Canadian labourers are expected to hang up their hard hats over the next two years
More than 150,000 skilled workers and labourers are expected to retire across Canada over the next two years., and Gen Z doesn't appear to be interested in wearing hard hats.| Chung Chow

At the beginning of 2019, BuildForce estimated that B.C. would need 17,000 labourers and tradespeople between 2020 and 2021 to meet peak construction needs of just four energy projects: the Site C dam, the Coastal GasLink pipeline (CGL), LNG Canada and the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Turns out that number was conservative. In February, the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project alone employed 13,600 workers in B.C. and Alberta. Site C dam currently employs close to 4,000 workers, CGL 3,500 and LNG Canada 5,000. Conservatively, those four projects alone are employing 19,000 to 20,000 workers in B.C.

Since the pandemic caused some delays on some projects, peak construction years are now expected to be this year and next. By 2027, BuildForce expects a five per cent decline in “engineered construction” employment in B.C. (about 2,500 fewer jobs). It also expects a massive wave of retirement over the next two years across Canada.

“Retirements are expected to reach their highest levels over the next two years,” BuildForce stated in a recent forecast. “About 156,000 workers, many of whom are from the baby-boom generation, are expected to exit the industry.  This represents a significant loss of skills and experience – skills that take time to develop and that are not typically easily replaced by new workers entering the labour force.”

Given the number of skilled workers and labourers hanging up their hard hats, it’s remarkable that the energy mega-projects currently being built have not already experienced a skilled labour crunch.

“For the most part, I haven’t heard of any significant concerns expressed around the ability to access labour,” said BuildForce executive director Bill Ferreira. “That’s not surprising because … the planning that goes into these projects, they do that well in advance.”

“Right now, we are managing,” added Brynn Bourke, executive director of BC Building Trades, which represents 40,000 members.

While the residential construction sector is facing chronic shortages in some trades, the engineered construction sector took steps to ensure it would have an adequate supply of labour for the big energy projects.

Years before ground was broken on mega-projects like Site C dam or LNG Canada, industry, government, unions and post-secondary institutes were preparing for and planning around the construction boom.

The engineered construction boom in B.C. also coincided with a downturn in Alberta’s oil and gas sector, which freed up some skilled labour.

“For a long time, B.C.’s construction industry was really driven by the residential side,” Bourke said. “But we have been preparing for this industrial upswing. We have been seeing these projects coming down the pipe for a while. There has been a lot of planning that’s gone into preparing for different kinds of workers that would be needed for that heavy industrial.”

As mega-project construction begins to wind down in a few years, it will leave a valuable legacy: hundreds of skilled trades people who got their apprenticeship training while working in places like Kitimat and Fort St. John.

“When you have major projects of this duration, this complexity, these are apprenticeship-creating projects,” Bourke said. “These are projects that will carry people through three- and four-year apprenticeships.”

Many of the skills developed by workers employed on projects like Site C dam or the Coastal GasLink pipeline are transferable to natural resource industries, like mining and oil and gas.

But longer term, natural resource industries in particular may find it harder and harder to replace retiring workers, according to a new survey by BDO Canada, which found that generation Z isn’t all that interested in natural resource industries.

Construction and natural resource industries offer some very good, high-paying jobs, but they come at the expense of some values that generation Z, the demographic born after 1997, seems reluctant to forgo, like job security, work-life balance and the environment.

Steven Payne, national energy, power and utilities leader at BDO Canada, said the mining and energy sectors need to get the word out that they are not the hard, low-tech, dangerous and environmental indifferent industries that they were 20 years ago.

“It has baggage,” Payne said. “I was actually speaking to a Gen Z individual over the weekend, and he said that mining’s hard work, long hours, unsafe, it’s dirty, it’s bad for the environment.”

“Among the 13 industries rated by students in our survey, mining and oil and gas emerged in last place for overall attractiveness,” the BDO report found. “Whereas just 14% and 15% of students said they would be ‘very interested’ to pursue a career in the mining or oil and gas sectors, this number doubles to 31% for renewables.”

Young adults coming out of high school and university might be more inclined to work in mining if they knew how important it now is for the energy transition to address climate change. And they might be surprised at just how high-tech these industries are becoming and how much effort is going into improving environmental and safety performance.

“A lot of the perception … is mining from a different time,” Payne said. “Things have changed and are changing rapidly every day.”

Natural resource companies will need to focus on recruitment and retention from non-traditional labour pools: women, First Nations and immigrants.

According to BuildForce, women make up only five per cent of on-site construction work forces; Indigenous people make up nine per cent.

“As the Indigenous population is the fastest growing in Canada and Indigenous workers seem predisposed to the pursuit of careers within the sector, there may be scope to further increase the recruitment of Indigenous people into the construction workforce,” the BuildForce labour forecast states. “The construction industry may also leverage new Canadians over the coming decade to meet anticipated labour market requirements.”

Canada is expected to see more than 237,000 new international migrants each year between 2022 and 2027. Currently, immigrants make up 20 per cent of the construction sector’s work force.

“Increasing the participation rate of women, Indigenous people, and new Canadians could help Canada’s construction industry address its future labour force needs,” the report concludes.

[email protected]