Alberta could lose 31,000 construction jobs by 2019, according to a national labour forecast.

"The oil price decline is driving employment lower across all construction sectors," says BuildForce Canada's 2016-25 Construction and Maintenance Looking Forward forecast.

'Alberta has been through construction cycles before, but nothing this complex.' - Rosemary Sparks, executive director of BuildForce Canada

In the oilsands alone, construction jobs are forecast to decline by 28 per cent from the peak in 2014.

One bright spot in the short term is commercial building, where current project activity is expected to continue in 2016 before slowing in 2017, and then grow in steady increments over the long term.

"Alberta has been through construction cycles before, but nothing this complex," said Rosemary Sparks, executive director of BuildForce Canada, a national construction industry group.

"That's why it's crucial for industry to stay focused on recruiting young people and attracting and keeping those skilled trades that are, or will be, in the most demand."

'Skills vacuum'

The report warns of a "skills vacuum" once the economy starts to recover in 2020, more than making up for current job losses.

"Oilsands job losses, an aging workforce, the departure of out-of-province workers and the ongoing demand for workers to sustain and maintain projects are all behind complex shifts in Alberta's construction workforce," said Sparks.

"The loss of as many as 36,000 skilled workers retiring this decade makes it even more challenging to replace that kind of experience," she added.

Scott MacPherson, the dean of the school of construction at Calgary's SAIT Polytechnic, said two words sum up the current market: uncertainty and change.

"People aren't quite sure what's going on out there," he said. "Rather than the new construction that we've been experiencing for years now, maybe there'll be more of a focus on repairs, maintenance and operations."

Bright spots


Some 256,000 people work in Alberta's construction industry. (Canadian Press)

Even as Alberta's economy weakens, there is work in plant maintenance, shutdowns and turnarounds for skilled trades such as boilermakers, pipefitters and specialty welders, the report says.

Home renovation work is set to grow by 1,900 jobs across the forecast period.

As for residential construction, 9,000 jobs are expected to be lost between 2016 to 2019, followed by a period of partial recovery that raises employment by 7,000 jobs by 2025.

Flexibility essential

MacPherson said workers will have to be adaptable, given the new reality. 

"They need to be flexible in the careers that they consider, in the areas that they consider working," he said. 

"Maybe they're not going to be stationed in Fort McMurray for two years with new construction, maybe they'll be at a site doing repairs and maintenance for a short period of time and then moving on to another site. So they have to be quite mobile."

He also points to the changing demographics as a great opportunity for young workers.

"We see that the workforce is aging and for someone on the tools, maybe they want to move off the tools and they want to move to a supervisor job or a management job," he said. 

"So it's creating more opportunities for young people. We hear that from our employers, we hear that from our students and it's backed up with the data and the research that we see from organizations such as BuildForce."