Human resources for BC’s resource economy

By Jen Reid, on behalf of the British Columbia Construction Association (BCCA) 

Kevin McTavish (STEP regional employment placement specialist) and Aaron Smith (STEP participant, apprenticeship sheet metal worker) on site.  Photo by BCCA and Dave Silver Photography.

Kevin McTavish (STEP regional employment placement specialist) and Aaron Smith (STEP participant, apprenticeship sheet metal worker) on site. Photo by BCCA and Dave Silver Photography.

Long before many of the proposed LNG, pipeline, and resource projects get in the ground, many communities in the North are already feeling the pressure.

With several Northern cities already at three to four per cent employment – essentially, anyone who wants a job is in one – the current response from employers and employment agencies in the North when asked about finding skilled tradespeople is pretty succinct:

“There’s nobody left.”

“We’re running short.”

This is an issue concerning businesses looking to embrace the unique opportunities offered by current and proposed resource projects in the North.  The recent BuildForce report, Construction Looking Forward: British Columbia 2013-2021 identifies a number of construction trades which are significantly undersupplied.  Some of these are classified as critical shortages – that is: “Needed workers meeting employer qualifications are not available in local or adjacent markets to meet current demand so that projects or production may be delayed or deferred.”

These projections require a more creative hiring approach.  Employers must have a plan for their personnel before they bid on a project, digging a little deeper to find (and develop) the skilled workers they need.

BCCA president Manley McLachlan explains the situation as tactical:  “We must be as strategic in planning the development of our industry’s labour resources as we are in developing our country’s natural resources.”

Working with non-traditional labour pools is a start.  Many of the proposed projects – particularly in the Northeast – reportedly include requirements to work with the nearby communities, which are largely aboriginal.  These agreements which honour the local populations offer the greatest benefit for the term of construction and well beyond; ensuring those who are most affected are those who most benefit.

JobMatch participant in Fort St. John. Photo credit: BCCA and Dave Silver Photography.

JobMatch participant in Fort St. John.
Photo credit: BCCA and Dave Silver Photography.

For example, the estimate for these projects is one permanent job for every seven or eight temporary jobs over the course of construction.  With just one major effort in the North projecting hire of 7,500 individuals for construction over the next several years, that leaves a thousand permanent jobs to remain in the nearby communities.   With this in mind, developing the skills capacity of the local population is key.

“What we’re looking at now is getting training aligned with those needs, and at transferability of skills in the North, so that when one project ends, others are coming on stream,” says Paul Mitchell, provincial manager for the B.C. Construction Association’s Skilled Trades Employment Program (STEP). “For instance, we’ve taken people from large projects in the Northwest and successfully engaged them in the Northeast.  If these projects go ahead in the next few years, that’s a five-year opportunity in many cases.  That’s an opportunity to put an entry-level person in there and they will come out a journeyperson.  And that’s cool.  That’s what gets young apprentices engaged.”

“We can come in and provide support, and partner for training opportunities; the employer does the hire.  That process can take several months or a year; but in situations like we have with these resource projects, it can easily align with the opportunity that’s going to unfold.”

In response to this, the British Columbia Construction Association (BCCA) and its human resource programs are working with employers to respond to their demand – starting at home.

JobMatch, which connects unemployed individuals with jobs in the construction sector, recently completed its pilot program and was renewed in early 2013, following results well beyond the original goals.  STEP, on the other hand, is focused on improving opportunities for the employed and underemployed to build careers in the skilled trades through certifications, training, and apprenticeships, and continues to build on extremely strong results since its 2006 launch.

Both programs work to assess the strengths, skills, and attributes of individual workers to ensure a quality labour supply for construction employers, and ensure an effective connection between employer and employee.

Together, the programs have connected roughly 6,000 individuals with jobs in the construction sector, to significant benefit for each, but also with a wider reach.  Bruce Lund, the provincial manager for JobMatch, summarizes the effort as follows:  “What we’re trying to do is maximize the medium and long-term benefits for the local community where the site is, and for the overall community – the broader provincial economy.”

Lund explains the current status for his staff in the North:  “We’re already placing people every day in the projects that are live, including a number of block placements.  We recently placed 20 people within a single day, and then repeated it again within the same week.  The JobMatch program is like speed dating – we’ve received the request, identified and placed a client in 48 to 72 hours.  That’s about as fast as you can hire; those kind of transactional relationships are happening now.”

“At the same time, STEP is involved in the continuum of upgrading, and we can talk about a lot of supports,” says Mitchell.  “You’ve hired labourers and we ask – do any of these look like they’re ready to become apprentices?  Can we help you with that?  We’re finding new people for their company, or helping to build training programs for their team.  We can help the individual to get the certificates they need – and the employer doesn’t have to pay for it.  That’s a big issue for a lot of employers.  We hear ‘I don’t have time’, or ‘I can’t afford to train someone’ – and we can respond to that.”

While the programs’ field representatives expand their search and support methods only once the local labour market for the needed workers is exhausted, other options are available.

Recruiting from beyond Canadian borders has become increasingly necessary in order to find highly skilled workers with in-demand specializations; in these cases, Foreign Skilled Workers BC (FSWBC) offers international search and immigration support for B.C. employers who have not been able to source journeypersons and other construction professionals within Canada who boast the sufficient experience and certifications to complete the projects to required specifications – or to be able to train Canadian apprentices.

“You can’t build something like the LNG projects with apprentices,” says Mitchell. “You’ve got to have skilled tradespeople; once you have those you can take on more apprentices.”

Alternatively, the programs’ provincial network allows for field representatives to connect and assist with the relocation – usually temporary – of workers in the southern parts of the province, benefiting not only the projects, but the workers’ home area.

Lund echoes this in practical terms for those of us well outside of Kitimat and Fort St. John.  “There are a number of people in the south parts of the province who encourage temporary relocation to the North.”

“At the end of the day they’re going to get a lot more journeypeople getting experience much faster than they can get by the level of activity currently available in the South.  And by the time they’ve finished these projects, they’ve become journeypersons.  After these projects are done, there are so many Boomers retiring in the coming years that they can use all those freshly minted journeymen – permanently – at home in the Okanagan.  There’s this ebb and flow of mobility that’s going to happen.”

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