It’s said that one person’s challenge is another’s opportunity.
That adage holds true when it comes to the challenges facing Canada’s construction industry and the opportunities available to high school students and graduates considering work in the skilled trades.
Recent data released by BuildForce Canada, the country’s national construction labour-market forecasting organization, paint a stark picture about a looming employment challenge. By 2030, the construction and maintenance industry will need to hire as many as 309,000 workers to fill those vacancies left behind by retirees, and to keep up with demands created by growth.
Labour force gaps will exist across provinces and territories, among all trades, and through all periods of time, making this the ideal time for students to consider pursuing careers in the skilled trades.
The industry’s challenge has never been larger, and for students, the opportunity has never been greater.
Canada’s workforce – across most industries, not just construction – is aging.
The share of the population aged 65 years and over is expected to increase from 18% in 2020 to 22% in 2030. Retirements, naturally, will follow. At the same time, the share of the population aged 15 to 24 years is expected to decline from 12% to 11%. Since labour force participation among older workers is much lower than that of their younger counterparts, labour markets are expected to tighten.
Construction’s workforce is older than most. Data from 2016 suggest that as many as one in five workers in the 20 major construction occupations were at least 55 years old. This fact underpins BuildForce Canada’s projection that more than 259,000 workers will retire by the end of this decade.
Growth also has a role to play in construction’s hiring needs. Although the industry was pegged back somewhat in 2020 due to public-health measures aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19, the slowdown is expected to be temporary. All indicators suggest strong growth across the residential and non-residential construction sectors, with activity in both peaking around 2025, before moderating through the end of the decade.
“Although the strength and pace of construction’s recovery will be spread unevenly across the provinces and territories, and will depend on the recovery in consumer and business confidence, our models suggest that the non-residential sector will add nearly 40,000 workers through 2025, and the residential sector more than 32,000 over the same period,” says BuildForce Canada Executive Director Bill Ferreira. “All of which means that the industry will look to recruit new and talented workers across the country and among a broad range of trades.”
Apprenticeship: a clear path to a meaningful career
Construction has long suffered the label of being the industry of last-resort – a place where workers wound up when they didn’t have the aptitude to excel in higher-regarded white-collar professions. Perceptions, however, are changing.
For one, this is no longer an industry that relies on brute force and which shies away from technology. Skills and innovation abound – in terms of the sophistication of the structures being built, the methods used to build to the highest standards of, for example, energy efficiency, and the tools being deployed on site. (Exoskeletons, anyone?)
For another, a certification in the skilled trades is increasingly seen as a clear and direct path to gainful employment and a meaningful career. This is particularly the case when compared against undergraduate university degrees, which are more expensive to obtain and don’t always bring graduates to careers in their chosen fields.
“The path to meaningful work in the skilled trades is much clearer and more direct by comparison,” says Ferreira. “Depending on the trade and the region of the country, an apprenticeship in a trade can take between two and five years to complete. Apprentices spend about a fifth of their time working on in-class exercises, and the remainder on the job where they get paid for their work, and learn alongside certified professionals. And once a worker completes their apprenticeship, their journeyperson designation earns them the right to pursue work anywhere in their trade.”
The cost of training can also be reduced through government funding. Some jurisdictions offer grants to help apprentices cover associated costs such as tuition and tool purchases, and provide incentives to employers to hire apprentices. The time to complete an apprenticeship can be even shorter for those who complete pre-apprenticeship training programs in high school.
Trade skills can also be portable – a fact that is of further benefit in Canada where regional construction volumes can fluctuate. The Red Seal Program uses national standards and interprovincial exams to enable graduates to pack up their skills and move from province to province and territory to territory with ease.
Challenging, rewarding careers with huge potential
Construction careers are rewarding – socially as well as financially. For many tradespeople, the money they earn, which can escalate quickly, is an incentive. So too is being a part of leaving a lasting legacy in bricks and mortar on the community, and providing fellow citizens with new places to live, work, and play.
“Most tradespeople won’t hesitate to say, “I helped build that” when they see a building or hear about a project they worked on,” says Ferreira. “That sense of pride of belonging to a team, delivering a job well done, and contributing to the community can’t be overlooked in today’s labour market where millennials and post-millennials actively select jobs based on a desire to be part of something greater than themselves.”
Construction work is also engaging and stimulating, both from a physical and intellectual point of view. Problem-solving is a routine part of the job, as is physical activity. For those who crave hard work and fitness, few careers can match.
Beyond all of these, one of the longer-term benefits of working in construction is its potential to inspire entrepreneurship. A great number of people certified in the skilled trades eventually go on to found their own companies. Key Small Business Statistics for 2016 published by the Government of Canada show that about 12% of the country’s small businesses are construction companies. Collectively, those contractors employ about 820,000 people – an enormous percentage of the industry’s total labour force.
By any standard, those facts show that, for those who demonstrate an aptitude for their work in the skilled trades, there is tremendous potential for personal fulfillment, financial gain, career development, and long-term success.
The industry’s changing face
One of the last great challenges before the construction industry is to diversify its image.
Indeed, says Ferreira, “if the industry is to close its labour gaps, it will have to take further steps to appeal to, and recruit from, groups traditionally underrepresented in the current labour force: women, Indigenous people, and newcomers to Canada.”
The good news is, some of that track has already been laid. Canada’s construction industry now counts about 190,000 women – a figure that generally trends higher each year.
Although most females (73%) employed in the industry work in administrative and management-related occupations, several organizations are taking steps to increase gender diversity in the skilled trades. The federal government, for example, offers apprenticeship incentive grants of up to $3,000 annually for women who apprentice in Red Seal trades. It has also contributed millions to programs to support women’s participation in the skilled trades, such as one run by Canada’s Building Trades Unions to launch Office to Advance Women Apprentices in several provinces.
The industry is becoming more diverse in other ways. Indigenous people, although comprising just 5% of the national construction labour force, tend to seek work in the trades at a greater rate (9.6%) than non-Indigenous people (7.6%). As such, Indigenous people make up an important segment of the construction workforce in both on-site and off-site professions.
Finally, construction has historically done well to attract newcomers to Canada. The construction workforce today is composed of about 18% newcomers. With Canada poised to accept more than 320,000 immigrants over the coming decade, newcomers will make up an even larger share of the overall industry labour force in the years to come.
Never a better time to work in the trades
For young people entering the job market this summer – and through the next two to three years – the prospect of finding work in the construction trades has never been greater. The industry will need to fill the gaps left created by the retirements of tens of thousands of workers and more created by growth.
The good news is, the path to a meaningful construction career, particularly when held up against post-secondary traditional education pathways, is clearer, shorter, and more affordable. Construction skills are not only in demand, but they are also portable, and for those with a natural tendency toward independence, construction work often leads to self-employment and entrepreneurship.
By any measure, there has never been a greater time for high school students and graduates to pursue work in the construction trades.
Visit careersinconstruction.ca to learn more.
BuildForce Canada is 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.
By: Bill Ferreira