Women, Indigenous people and immigrants increasingly important to construction trades

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By Richard Lyall
RESCON

Although construction activity across Canada slowed in 2023, particularly in the homebuilding industry, there will be a need to recruit tens of thousands of workers over the next 10 years due to an anticipated uptick in work and increase in industry retirements of Baby Boomers.

Demands in the next decade will require the construction labour force to expand by some 88,400 workers. Meanwhile, 263,400 individuals are expected to retire over the same time period, or 21 per cent of the workforce, bringing the hiring requirement to 351,800, according to the latest national summary of construction labour markets prepared by BuildForce Canada.

Nationally, the industry is expected to recruit approximately 266,300 new entrants under the age of 30 during this period, but is likely to still be short 85,500 workers by 2033.

Tall order

To meet the demand, we are going to need more people to take up the trades, and significantly raise the participation of women, Indigenous people and immigrants in the industry.

It’s a tall order to fill.

Of the 1.18 million trades employed in construction in 2023, women accounted for just five per cent of the onsite workforce.

Indigenous people accounted for 5.1 per cent of Canada’s construction labour force in 2021, down slightly from 5.2 per cent from five years earlier.

In 2022, meanwhile, newcomers comprised about 19 per cent of the total construction labour force in Canada.

In Ontario alone, the construction industry will need to recruit about 141,200 workers over the next decade to keep up with growth and offset retirements. So, recruitment is an ongoing challenge.

It will be an uphill battle. Sixty-five per cent of respondents to an Ontario Construction Secretariat survey indicated they expect recruiting skilled workers to be more difficult in 2024.

Opportunity for women

With the federal and provincial governments making large investments in infrastructure to support housing, trades will be needed to build the roads and transit and homes of the future.

Although the number of women in the industry is still low, it signals there is plenty of opportunity for women. Regrettably, many women still do not believe a career in the trades is for them.

As Melissa Young, CEO and registrar of Skilled Trades Ontario, noted in a recent op-ed, many women don’t see themselves represented in the skilled trades and often hear the message that the careers are unsuitable for them. Therefore, the perception must change if we are to make progress.

We couldn’t agree more.

In Ontario, for one, there is some good news. In 2023, more than 3,100 of the 27,000 new apprenticeship registrations were women – an almost 30 per cent increase over the previous spring. The bump shows the trend is heading in the right direction. But more remains to be done.

We must have meaningful dialogue and also take concrete action to recruit and retain women in the industry. It’s a theme that needs to spread across the entire construction industry. A five-per-cent participation rate of women in the industry is no cause for celebration.

Recruitment and retention

Recruitment and retention efforts have expanded considerably over the last several years. So has government funding for apprentices and employers who hire women. We must keep this going and take more steps to improve the recruitment of women.

Immigration is also key to fixing the problem.

When choosing which newcomers are allowed to immigrate to Canada, RESCON continues to advocate for prioritizing workers with specialized skills set who can work in residential construction. These workers include tile setters, trim carpenters, framers, concrete formers and others.

Research has shown that our immigration strategy favours university-educated applicants. Of the 1.3 million applicant landed immigrants admitted between 1980 and 2021 still in the labour force, 69 per cent held a bachelor’s degree or higher. Individuals with apprenticeship certificates or non-apprenticeable trade certificates accounted for only four per cent of admissions.

Specialized skill sets

The federal government must increase the number of points awarded to immigrants with specialized skill sets to work in the residential construction sector when newcomers are being assessed. The system needs to favour these types of workers equally if not more than workers who have a university degree. Workers with construction skills often fall below the threshold.

Activity in the residential construction sector across Canada has dipped from the peaks recorded in 2021 and is anticipated to contract again this year. However, growth in the sector is expected between 2025 and 2028 which will strain labour supply. By 2028, employment in the residential sector is projected to rise six per cent.

As work picks up in the construction industry, which it inevitably will do, the need for skilled workers will increase. Increasingly, we must look to women, Indigenous people and immigrants to fill the void.

Richard Lyall is president of the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON). He has represented the building industry in Ontario since 1991. Contact him at media@rescon.com.