Trades skills shortage, traffic congestion delaying local development

Lower Mainland’s construction labour crunch unlikely to be addressed without region-wide planning, experts say

Roughly 20% of B.C.’s 220,000 construction industry workers are expected to retire over the next 10 years | Yuttana Contributor Studio/Shutterstock

There's no relief on the horizon for the worsening labour shortage in B.C.’s home-building sector, but industry officials say discussions on a solution still need to take place.

Last month, BC Construction Association (BCCA) president Chris Atchison said the current shortfall of workers in B.C. is worse than the 15,000 reported in a 2016 report. The shortfall is leading to project delays and – potentially – adding to already exorbitant levels of home ownership costs.

The local Urban Development Institute (UDI), which represents the B.C. developers’ sector, echoes BCCA’s observations in noting an acute shortage in construction labour, but added the solution goes far beyond the need to train more tradespeople in the building industry.

Anne McMullin, president and CEO of UDI Pacific, said existing local labour isn’t being maximized because Metro Vancouver’s growing traffic congestion is making it difficult for trades workers – some of whom can’t afford to live close to sites like the North Shore – to go to work in those municipalities.

“We’re finding that it’s difficult to get tradespeople to come to downtown or the North Shore because of the inability to park,” McMullin said. “In the case of the North Shore, there’s not enough housing being built, so tradespeople have to commute in and out. So with the traffic, we are seeing a reluctance from tradespeople to go where they need to go.”

McMullin added that developers are frustrated that they can’t get enough labour to build housing units that could improve affordability by adding more housing units into the market. Some of the units, she noted, could be occupied by trades workers, which would then lower the construction costs in the area by increasing the availability of local labour. That labour would then be used to build more housing, resulting in a systematic, cyclical improvement in housing affordability.

But she also noted – with the region’s transportation plan (including projects like the Broadway SkyTrain extension) not yielding many concrete results – the reverse cyclical effect is happening: workers can’t get to projects, housing can’t be built and local labour availability is not improving.

“We need to look at the issue as a region, as opposed to what we’re used to doing, which is looking at individual municipalities,” McMullin said. “There needs to be a strategy as a region, and the fact we are not doing it is having an impact on our economy and our trades – not to mention our ability to even address the housing affordability issue.”

Bill Ferreira, executive director of federal construction industry advocacy group BuildForce Canada, said that while B.C. overall is not expected to see a labour shortage in 2018, the situation in the Lower Mainland is expected to remain tight.

He added that the labour shortage issue could be further complicated by major projects such as the George Massey Tunnel replacement or the Site C dam, which would reduce provincial labour availability.

The best short-term solution, he said, would be to rely on inter-provincial labour – pulling in surplus workers from neighbouring provinces like Alberta. But, even if it proves effective (some local employers have found it difficult to retain workers returning to communities like Fort McMurray to rebuild), that move doesn’t address the bigger, longer-term concerns, Ferreira said.

“Over time … the construction and maintenance sector will need to increase its emphasis on recruitment, as nearly 20% of the province’s 220,000 construction trade workers are expected to retire over the next 10 years. A focus on the recruitment of women, Indigenous workers and immigrants will all be necessary to achieve this goal.”

On that front, there has been some optimism. Local vocational-training programs from schools like Vancouver Community College have found interest in trades increasing among broader swaths of the Lower Mainland’s demographic in recent years.

John English, dean of the faculty of applied and technical studies at the University of the Fraser Valley, said enrolment in trades programs is improving from both international students and local students from minority groups.

“Diversity of an average class is not far off from the diversity you see in the community, and that is a good thing,” English said. “Generally, there’s still an aversion to trades, but there’s an enlightenment in the last five years that the education is rewarding, and interest is growing a great deal. The message that you can do well in trades is getting through.”

That message needs to be continued, said UDI’s McMullin, who added that the province and municipalities need to do everything in their power to support people who are interested in construction trades, and that goes back to having a comprehensive regional plan on housing, transportation and affordable development.

“These are very, very high-paying jobs,” McMullin said of the trades. “But if people can’t make it work, they won’t go into the trades. People tend to want to blame the 2% to 3% of foreign buyers or the developers, but we need to look at ourselves and say, ‘How are we growing the region? What are we trying to achieve?’ When we don’t ask those questions, the issue manifests itself in the form of the lack of labour.”