Labour shortage ahead, experts warn Ottawa's booming construction industry

Construction

With work on Confederation LRT Line coming down to the wire, major arteries such as Elgin Street currently in the midst of being torn up and other projects such as construction of the combined sewage storage tunnel in full swing, Steven MacKinnon pretty much summed up the state of Ottawa in one sentence at the recent City-Building Summit.

“It really is the golden age for infrastructure investment in this city,” the Liberal MP for Gatineau told the audience at Lansdowne Park’s Horticulture Building, no doubt prompting nods from many in the crowd of business leaders and politicians.

Steve Goodman certainly doesn’t need any convincing. 

The president of the National Capital Heavy Construction Association says his industry, which employs more than 9,000 people in the region, is booming. And with the City of Ottawa preparing to draft a new master plan for its roads, rail lines and other key infrastructure – not to mention projects such as phase two of light rail and the eventual redevelopment of LeBreton Flats waiting in the wings – it’s a trend he expects to continue.

“Certainly, there’s going to be a lot of spinoff from LRT on the development side,” said Goodman, an engineer with GEMTEC Consulting. “People want to live and work near light rail, so there’s going to be infill and things like that.”

Noting last winter was “not kind” to Ottawa’s roadways, he says the city is going to have to invest significantly in repairing potholes at some point ​– even though it remains far behind schedule on other key projects such as widening the Airport Parkway to four lanes. 

That all adds up to one thing, he says: more work for the 230-plus companies that are members of his organization.

“I would say all things are pointing in a positive direction,” he said. “I think our members are optimistic. We’re excited with the opportunities in front of us.”

The results of a major survey of businesses in Ottawa would appear to support Goodman’s sunny outlook.

In the results of the Ottawa Business Growth Survey released in June, firms in the construction sector were more bullish than any other industry except tech. 

The business confidence index for construction – a composite mark based on responses to a wide range of survey questions – sat at a robust 131.6, up nearly three points from a year earlier. (A score higher than 100 is considered positive, while a score lower than 100 is negative.) Only the hospitality industry had a bigger uptick in confidence year over year.

Still, there are a few clouds on the horizon.

While the industry is certainly not suffering from a lack of work, it could soon be facing a shortage of labourers to finish all the city-building projects on the docket.

It’s a common refrain among local businesses across all sectors – seven in 10 respondents in the recent growth survey said attracting and retaining skilled workers was one of the biggest issues facing their companies.

According to NCHCA executive director Kathy Sutherland, the heavy construction industry is no exception.

“Recruitment to our industry is an ongoing challenge,” she said. “It has been in the past few years, we’re seeing it again this year and we expect that it’s going to continue a little bit longer into the future.” 

Mass retirements

With industry research suggesting that one in five construction workers plan to retire in the next decade, she said, the search for skilled labour isn’t about to get any easier.

“We’re already struggling to find people to work in our industry,” Sutherland said, “and it’s only going to get worse.”

Sean Lundy, CEO of Ottawa-based M.P. Lundy Construction, agreed.

“We all feel that trend being quite entrenched now, and going in the direction of, there’s just not enough people,” he said.

Lundy
Sean Lundy, CEO of M.P. Lundy Construction. File photo

While Goodman conceded that many firms are “concerned” about a looming labour shortage, he believes the industry will adapt through a combination of technology and programs aimed at turning a new generation of workers on to careers in construction.

Goodman, Lundy and others note that technology such as drones and 3D imaging software is becoming a much bigger part of the building process, opening up the sector to talent with cutting-edge skills that simply weren’t needed in the past.

Goodman says his industry has to do a better job of getting that message out to people such as high school students and tech-savvy individuals who might be considering a career change. 

“The (idea) of just a crew with some shovels and maybe a bulldozer – that’s still very important and I don’t want to minimize that because at the end of the day we’ve got to move a lot of dirt,” he said. “But (the industry is) not without opportunities for those that are technically minded.”

Cheryl Jensen, who retired as president of Algonquin College in late June, told the crowd at the City-Building Summit that post-secondary institutions need to work with industry and government on a strategy to promote the benefits of pursuing careers in skilled trades.

“It’s not just about hammering nails and digging trenches... There’s just so much more to the industry than that.” 

“I’m a firm believer that we have to be careful not just to train for today’s skills,” she added. “We have the capacity at Algonquin to increase the trades.” 

Noting that her association offers a number of bursaries to post-secondary students – including one specifically for women – Sutherland said the construction sector is working to shed its image as a “dirty industry” in an effort to lure talent that might otherwise gravitate toward sectors such as software development and information technology.

“One of the things that we recognize is that we need a societal change to make the construction industry look more appealing to everybody and anybody,” she said.

“It’s not just about hammering nails and digging trenches,” Lundy added. “There’s just so much more to the industry than that.”