Construction jobs expected to rebound, but recruitment problems persist

After a year of economic uncertainty, pandemic-related lockdowns and ongoing concerns over the spread of new COVID-19 variants, most Canadians welcomed 2021 with great anticipation and an expectation of a return to something resembling their pre-pandemic lives.

All things considered, British Columbia’s construction and maintenance industry navigated the challenges of 2020 relatively well. The industry pivoted quickly to implement new on-site health and sanitation protocols, and was fortunate to be declared an essential service provider – meaning that construction could continue throughout most of the region.

All this is not to say construction was immune to the effects of the pandemic. Quite the opposite – employment fell by more than 30,000 workers between March and April 2020 – a decline of some 13%. May and June numbers were only marginally better. A year later, employment remains stubbornly below pre-pandemic levels, a drop of nearly 11.2% in 2020 from 2019 levels compared with a drop of only 6.5% in national construction employment during this same period.

The good news is that construction employment in British Columbia, and particularly in the Lower Mainland, should rebound quickly over the next few years. In our latest 2021–30 labour market outlook for the Lower Mainland, BuildForce Canada estimates regional employment gains of approximately 6,300 workers through 2023.

Employment growth, however, will not be split evenly between the residential and non-residential sectors. While the residential sector is expected to add 1,000 workers, largely due to increases in renovation and maintenance activity, the non-residential sector will add 5,300 workers over the same period – an increase of 15% over 2020 employment levels. Demand there will be bolstered by such regional projects as the Pattullo Bridge replacement, the Broadway subway line, the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain, the Northwest Langley Wastewater Treatment Plant expansion, and Phase 1 of the new St. Paul’s Hospital.

Growth is certainly good, but increasing workforce retirements may limit the industry’s ability to keep pace with construction demands. BuildForce expects about 24,300 workers of the Lower Mainland’s construction workforce – or about 21% of its 2020 workforce – will retire by 2030. And while an expected 20,500 new entrants are forecast to replace those outbound workers, a potential gap of as many as 3,800 workers may emerge by the close of the decade.

Closing that gap will require further collaboration with government, educational institutions and industry training providers. Worker mobility – whether from other B.C. industries, from other regions of the province or from other parts of the country – will be important. So too will be attracting workers from groups traditionally underrepresented in the industry, including women, Indigenous people and newcomers to Canada.

Women comprise about 14% of B.C.’s construction and maintenance labour force, or about 32,700 workers. Their share of the provincial economy’s total overall workforce, however, is far higher, at 48%. The construction and maintenance industry is quite right to target recruitment efforts here to correct the current imbalance.

A closer look at gender-based employment numbers shows even further disparities. Women accounted for 43% of those working in construction offices, making them slightly underrepresented on the corporate side. On site, however, women accounted for just 6% of industry employment. .

Increasing the number of Indigenous people in the industry would also help the sector overcome its anticipated future labour force needs. Indigenous people make up about 5.7% of the construction labour force, with most (82%) working in on-site professions. Given the predisposition of Indigenous workers to consider careers in construction, there may be scope to expand this segment of the workforce even further.

Finally, with British Columbia expected to welcome an average of more than 69,000 new international migrants each year between 2021 and 2030, the industry would do well to target newcomers for recruitment. New Canadians currently make up about 24% of B.C.’s construction labour force. Further efforts targeted at this group should help ensure the construction industry continues to recruit its share of newcomers and new Canadians throughout the decade.

With rising construction demands in the region and increasing retirements, the construction and maintenance industry will need to keep focused on recruitment and retention throughout the decade to avoid future labour force challenges. While the recruitment challenges are great, they are not insurmountable for an industry that remains a pillar of the province’s economy – and will continue to be for years to come. •

Bill Ferreira is executive director of BuildForce Canada, a national industry-led organization committed to working with the construction industry to provide information and resources to assist with its management of workforce requirements.