52 per cent of workers set to retire in next 15 years

When one of his area's most lucrative masonry contracts finally came up for grabs last summer, eastern Ontario contractor Tony Pascoal reluctantly had to look the other way.

For more than a year, Pascoal, owner of AJV Masonry in Napanee, had waited for the federal government to list a $3.5-million restoration job on Fort Henry, an almost 200-year-old limestone citadel that overlooks the nearby city of Kingston. A roof in a walkway of the fort's parade square and some of the ramparts needed repairs.

It was heartbreaking to let the job go - not only because it would have provided three years of work for his company, but because the historical nature of the work would have been interesting and challenging.

"We love to do restoration and that's one of the jobs we had been waiting on for a long time, and unfortunately we had to shy away because of the demand on the workforce," Pascoal told Business Edge.

Michael Lea, Business Edge
Tony Pascoal, owner of AJV Masonry, has had to turn down lucrative contracts because he cannot be confident the needed masons will be available.

The work went to another local firm, Kingston's Santin Masonry, which had enough staff for the job. Nonetheless, Pascoal fears Kingston-area firms are getting less and less of the larger contracts due to a perceived shortage of skilled tradespeople that grips not only Kingston, but Ontario and some parts of Canada.

At the moment, shortages in skilled- trades are sporadic.

In Alberta, where there are a growing number of oilsands projects, there's a shortage of heavy equipment operators, said Jeff Morrison, spokesman for the Canadian Construction Association (CCA).

In British Columbia, the association anticipates there will soon be a skilled trades shortage as construction for the 2010 Olympics ramps up.

In Kingston, where homebuilding and institutional construction is strong, there is a shortage of people who know how to build homes and people skilled in the trowel trades, such as floorlaying and bricklaying, as well as a shortage of drywallers, said Peter Walker, executive director of the Kingston Construction Association (KCA).

A labour crisis is expected to hit Ontario in the next 15 years when 52 per cent of workers - baby boomers and post-war immigrants - in the skilled trades retire, according to figures from the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

It's been argued the same crisis looms across Canada and that such a shortage could drive up building costs, grind important construction projects to a standstill and make the country a less attractive place to invest.

While there are a few local stonemasons available for hire over the winter months, Pascoal said they'll all be booked up when spring comes.

Pascoal, who is also president of the Canadian Masonry Contractors Association, recently went as far as Peterborough, northern Ontario and the East Coast to recruit five new stonemasons.

He doesn't know where he'll get the 75 stonemasons he'll need when spring arrives, and when his business usually triples.

The federal and provincial governments, contractors and other private- sector partners are working together to fight the looming shortage and have built a number of construction-trades schools in Ontario.

They include the Ontario Masonry Training Centre, which has programs in Ottawa and Mississauga, and is currently training about 400 apprentice stonemasons with 50 to 60 journeymen graduates per year.

Contractors' associations and a number of private-sector partners, as well as the provincial and federal government, fund most of the students' fees.

Students pay only $400 in class fees to become certified journeymen in three to five years. When they graduate, they earn an average of $68,000, according to 2002 figures from Statistics Canada.

It seems word is spreading that the masonry trade, at least, is a lucrative one.

Don Attfield, executive director of the masonry training centre, said his program has a waiting list of 23 people and he expects that number to almost double by March.

Governments are also investing cash in the skilled trades.

The Ontario government introduced legislation last fall for an apprenticeship training tax credit of up to 30 per cent that would reward employers who hire and train apprentices.

Also announced were 1,500 scholarships of $1,000 for high-school dropouts who return to complete their schooling and enter apprenticeship training. A $2,000 bonus is also being offered to employers to hire young people as apprentices.

For more than five years, governments and construction associations have run a number of promotional campaigns, including one on MuchMusic, to lure young people into the skilled trades.

But it hasn't worked and some people warn there could be a nationwide skilled trades shortage.

Even though the average salary for a stonemason is $68,000 per year and a plumber can earn even more, young people are generally steering away from the trades in favour of university education.

"Parents and teachers have discouraged young people from going into the trades even though the trades make an exceptionally good living," the KCA's Walker said.

"In Germany, if children decide to be a mason, it's cause for celebration, but here in Canada it's like, 'Go to your room until you return with your sense,'" Walker said.

The CCA is creating a CD-ROM to distribute to schools. It's hoped the disk will show students some of the many reasons why they should consider a career in the construction trades.

"We know it's a hard sell, but we think we're seeing some progress," said Morrison, the construction association's spokesman.

Statistics Canada figures show registration in apprenticeship programs has risen. A Statistics Canada survey revealed a record number of registrations to apprenticeship programs in 2002 with particularly heavy gains in the building trades. More than 50,000 people enrolled in the building construction trades in 2002.

The only problem, Morrison pointed out, was that fewer registered apprenticeships completed training in 2002.

The largest one-year decline was in Ontario, where the number of people receiving certificates declined by more than 34 per cent, or 2,160, in 2002.

Completions also fell in Nunavut, B.C., Newfoundland and Labrador.

According to Statistics Canada, several factors affected the ability of registered apprentices to complete their training, including the duration of programs and the ability to maintain steady employment.

One important factor was that Ontario raised the passing mark on final examinations to 70 per cent from 60 per cent in early 2002.

Statistics Canada said in its report this had a substantial impact on peoples' decision to write the final apprenticeship examinations and on their success rate.

A two-month public-service strike in Ontario in the spring of 2002 didn't help because it prevented a large number of apprentices from writing examinations, the report added.

In order to accurately forecast workforce supply and demand, the federal government has helped set up the Construction Sector Council.

In an article titled No Quick Fix to Labour Supply Issue, council executive director George Gritziotis warns Canadians not to look at shortages in some of the skilled trades in isolation. Gritziotis says Canada has an aging construction workforce, but he argues this is part of a broader picture that includes job surpluses.

"We don't believe there is a ... skills shortage," council spokeswoman Michelle Walsh said in an interview. "In some cases there's a skills surplus."

In March, the council will release a construction labour market forecast that will predict labour demand by trade, sector and province to the year 2013. It will be the first of a series of forecasts and will be based on widespread consultation with many construction industry stakeholders and economists.

The CCA's Morrison conceded that not all construction trades are experiencing shortages.

"It really varies province to province and city to city, and depends on the type of work and projects in that particular situation," he said.

He said the construction industry has been noticing some skilled-trades shortages over the last 10 years, since the industry began to heat up across Canada.

"It's been a decade-long story," he said. "But if the market did soften, I'm sure a lot of these stories would start going away."

For now, however, the results of shortages in some skilled trades are becoming obvious, he said.

In Toronto, new-home buyers must wait up to a year for a new home to be built. And often the quality isn't up to scratch because the contractors have done a rush job.

In Alberta, some of the oilsands projects are experiencing substantial cost overruns because labourers are costing more as a result of a skilled-labour shortage, Morrison said. "It's becoming a huge problem. Some companies are saying maybe we won't be able to move forward on expansion."

In Kingston, much of the work on many of the larger jobs, such as the new Wal-Mart store, is going to outside firms because the necessary labour can't be found locally, said Pascoal.

He worries about the spring when he'll have to find the extra masons to fill demand for his company's services.

"By not getting enough workers when we needed them in summer and fall, the work is now falling behind into the winter, which is putting us behind on new work that is being tendered," he said.

He knows he's not an isolated case.

(Frank Armstrong can be reached at armstrong@businessedge.ca)