By Kim Arnott
Canadian demographics suggest a looming skilled worker shortage is on the horizon. According to Statistics Canada, the first of the country's baby boomers will hit the age of 65 in 2012, and by the end of this decade, the vast majority of boomers will retire from the workforce. Almost half of Canadian workers will be between 45 and 64 by 2015, and the construction industry is expected to be hit particularly hard by the retirement of skilled workers, such as heavy equipment operators, electricians and other tradespeople.
According to Rosemary Sparks, Construction Sector Council spokeswoman, almost 25 percent of the sector's skilled workers will retire in the next decade. And experts say the industry faces a variety of challenges as it attempts to replace those workers.
Labour market surveys show there is already a greater demand than supply for skilled workers like carpenters, pipefitters and homebuilding professionals. And while the recession has eased the frantic search for construction sector workers seen in recent years in overheated economies such as Alberta's, there is still plenty of evidence that companies across the country are struggling to find employees with the skills they need.
A study by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) found nearly 40 percent of its members reporting that labour shortages were a concern for them in the first half of 2010. Although down from a high of about 50 percent during the mid-2000s, when a general labour shortage was being seen in a number of industries across the country, the slight reprieve is expected to be temporary.
"As we come out of the recession, the demographic reality hasn't changed," says Dan Kelly, CFIB's senior vice-president of legislative affairs. "With our ageing population and lower birth rate, the number of new entrants into the workforce has slowed."
Facing the retirement of 62,000 workers along with anticipated job growth, the construction industry must also deal with other challenges with the immigration and educational systems as it attempts to replace retiring workers.
"The trades are a big concern," Kelly says. "Our immigration system is not set up to bring in tradespeople from outside Canada. Unless you have several university degrees, you're unlikely to get the number of points that you need to come to Canada."
Additionally, fewer students are interested in choosing a career in construction. In the most recent Statistics Canada poll, 42 percent of people aged 13 to 24 said they would be unlikely to consider a career in the skilled trades, and 67 percent of them identified university as their first choice for post-secondary education.
A number of attempts are being made by government and industry organizations to help raise awareness amongst Canadian youth about the opportunities the skilled trades. A career exploration program run by the Toronto District School Board Construction Sector Council exposes students to different trades and job sites to familiarize them with the various construction career options available.
"We need to promote a consistent type of message about our industry and show students that people can have a very rewarding career and make a good living in the construction industry," Sparks says. "The Toronto District School Board program is really effective for providing an opportunity for young people to see first hand what possibilities exist in the industry."
While competitive wages and benefits are going to be an inevitable part of attracting and retaining qualified workers in the coming years, Kelly suggests smaller companies that may not be able to offer the same paycheques as larger companies may be able to use other creative ways to attract talent.
Surveys have found that employees like the flexibility, access to decision-makers and ability to learn a variety of skill sets that are frequently found in smaller firms. Kelly says companies should highlight some of the quality-of-life benefits they can offer employees.
Both he and Sparks also agree there will is increasing interest in attracting skilled workers from previously untapped labour pools. Aboriginal people, women, senior immigrants, older workers and disabled workers who have previously been underemployed in construction will replenish the construction industry workforce that will be retiring and meet the demand for skilled workers.
During its peak demand for employees, Alberta's provincial government began heavily promoting the trades among aboriginal youth, resulting in about 1,100 aboriginal apprentices in the province in 2006, up from about 200 in 2002.
It's a strategy that Sparks thinks is sound. "They have the fastest growing population and the youngest population in Canada, and they're underemployed," she notes.
With labour shortages on the horizon, employers will need to ensure their workplaces are attractive and accommodating to young people, women, aboriginal people and newcomers to Canada.
"The challenge for employers to find workers means that they are having to be far more creative and accommodating than they've ever had to be in the past," Kelly says.