Construction industry had a spectacular 2004

Thursday, December 30th, 2004

Tradesmen were in short supply as the building boom took off last year

Gillian Shaw

CREDIT: Peter Battistoni, Vancouver Sun Steve Lornie, of Fairmile Construction, helped drive the initiative to create a program fast-tracking a training program for formwork carpenters.

If British Columbia’s cyclical construction sector follows a pattern of feast or famine, 2004 must go down as the year the table was filled to overflowing.

Contractors who remember long days of knocking on doors, making cold calls in the hopes of drumming up business, hardly had time to answer all their calls.

Homeowners fretted that they won’t be able to find someone to rebuild the back deck. Businesses worried they won’t be able to find enough people to build the Olympic venues.

There is no sign of a let-up and schools and training facilities are struggling to keep up with the demand for new grads. Government-sponsored ads pitch young people on careers in the trades.

Chris Ricketts can remember to the day when his home building business took a turn for the better. It hasn’t slowed since.

“I had houses that were sitting unsold for two years,” he said. “The day the [last] election was called, I sold two houses within a week. People thought things would get better with the economy.”

As far as the construction industry is concerned, things did get better. Like much of B.C.’s business community, the construction sector is pretty much a Gordon Campbell fan club, with builders pointing to the provincial government’s business-friendly climate as a spur to investment.

“We were so far behind and now we are so far ahead we are running to catch up,” said Ricketts, whose 20-year-old son Warren has joined him in the building business. “I started in business for myself in 1974 and I have seen both good and bad times, but this past couple of years has been crazy.

“It is all very positive.”

While it has been on an upward trend for a while, the industry sees 2004 as a special year.

“I think it was a turnaround year for us in many ways,” said Ricketts.

It was the same story in the institutional, commercial and industrial sectors.

“Probably what has been most notable has been the increasing rate of activity over the course of the past 12 months,” said Manley McLachlan, president of the B.C. Construction Association. “The year started off on a very busy foot and got progressively busier as we went along.”

However, the upturn has brought its own dilemmas.

“While this is good news, it has created some challenges around the availability of skilled trades,” McLachlan said. “Some of these changes are upon us perhaps a little quicker than we anticipated.”

Like the homebuilders, the BCCA has welcomed the opportunity for input into training and skills issues.

“We were very pleased to put together an advisory council on construction training to work with the Industry Training Authority (ITA) and other industry associations,” McLachlan said.

While provincial government legislation to bring in its new Industry Training Authority was introduced in 2003, last year marked a real transition into the new system as the ITA started to bring changes to training and apprenticeship programs. The nine-member ITA board’s goal is to increase access to training in an effort to meet skills shortages.

Industry has called for such changes as breaking four-year apprenticeship programs into modules so workers can be fully trained in one area — such as forming or framing — and be able to work in that area without having to complete all segments of training.

Industry and government also started turning to non-traditional sources to deal with the skills shortages, including immigrant and aboriginal populations. Programs and initiatives are underway both to train new people and to help workers who come from other countries gain the qualifications they need to work in their chosen field here.

When labour economist Roslyn Kunin completed an employment forecast about two years ago, the 2010 Winter Olympics were the brightest spot on the horizon and the major generator of jobs to come. However, since then, Kunin said, the turnaround in the economy has changed that picture so that the Olympics are now only a small part of an overall economic future that includes investment in B.C.’s resource industries, homebuilding, oil and gas and other bright spots.

“I’m delighted,” Kunin said. “I might have to give up my licence as a dismal economist because of all this good news.

“It is nice to have good news for a change.”

Kerry Jothen, a labour analyst and chief executive officer of Human Capital Strategies, said there has been enough evidence in 2004 to convince people that the labour shortages are not “just a passing blip.”

Jothen said employers, educators and policy makers seem to be realizing they must start doing things differently if they are to meet the challenges of the skills squeeze.

“On a positive note, I see more employer groups taking action and developing and executing initiatives to do with training, recruitment and retention,” he said.

“I see real action starting to be taken by different groups, and part of that is not just employers and industry groups doing it themselves, but partnerships with the public sector and with communities that have more barriers — aboriginal and immigrant groups in particular.

“Reflecting on the last year, those are things that I am seeing more of.”

A five-per-cent unemployment rate is often regarded as the level at which the labour market is considered very tight, and Jothen said many sectors are already in that territory.

Overall, the province’s jobless rate dropped to a low of 6.4 per cent in November, but Jothen said the rate in some sectors is even lower as demand for services comes up against the growing number of baby boomers retiring from the workforce.

“Professional, technical and health care had the lowest unemployment rate in the most recent stats I have seen and they were much lower than the aggregate average,” he said. “There is job growth combined with people in these categories who are leaving the labour force.”

Colin Wong, director of communications at the Architectural Institute of B.C. is well positioned to see the future of construction in the province. As he points out, the current demand for architects and architectural technicians means there is a growing number of projects on the books.

“Architects are a gauge of how the economy will be doing, not just now, but a year from now,” he said. “They are drawing up plans for projects that won’t start until a year from now.

“And we are already seeing a shortage of trades, we are seeing a shortage of architects and supporting architectural staff. It is really booming, and I can’t see an end in sight.”

– – –


Construction has been a main driver in B.C.’s employment picture, with jobs in that sector showing strong growth.

B.C.’s share of all new Canadian construction jobs:

2001-2004: 30%

2003-2004: 50%

Average construction work force

2001: 115,000

2002: 120,000

2003: 122,000

2004: 150,000

* November to November averages, CMHC

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

Comments are closed.