British Columbia

Early education key to filling shortage of skilled trades workers in B.C., says industry expert

Rory Kulmala, the CEO of the Vancouver Island Construction Association, says construction is booming and steps need to be taken now to ensure there are enough skilled employees to keep meeting demand.

'There's a heavy application of focusing students on academic success versus vocational success'

Unlike Ontario and Quebec, British Columbia never shut down its construction sector during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, one industry insider says there is a demand for employees as the B.C. building boom continues. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

A pandemic didn't stop construction projects from moving forward in British Columbia, but a labour shortage could says the CEO of the Vancouver Island Construction Association.

Rory Kulmala, speaking to CBC's On The Island host Gregor Craigie Wednesday, said there is no shortage of work at the moment, with a record number of projects currently underway just in the capital city alone, and while a lack of skilled trades workers is not yet "shutting down the industry," this could be the case soon if measures are not taken now.

"It's at that state where we want to do something now. And if we want to avoid that truly critical state in five to seven years, we need to start making some inroads now to expand our trade workforce," said Kulmala.

And he has a few suggestions on how to make that happen.

Start them young

Kulmala said he would like to see more emphasis put on trades as a viable career choice in high school.

"We have to start presenting the skilled trades to young people earlier in their education journey and creating a system that allows them to excel at shop and makes them a vocational rock star when they graduate," he said.

Programs like Youth Explore Trades Skills, which expose students to different trades in the latter years of high school, or programs offered by school districts that let students work toward a career in trades while still completing high school, help point people in the right direction. 

But Kulmala said the push at school is still often toward other career choices. 

"There's a heavy application of focusing students on academic success versus vocational success."

Expand training 

British Columbia is launching a mandatory trades certification system the government claims will support higher paying and more stable jobs for workers.

The government says the program will help address the perception problem that trades work is less desirable than other jobs and lower in prestige. 

Trades included in the program that feed the construction industry include electrician, refrigeration and air conditioning mechanic, gasfitter, sheet metal worker, steamfitter and pipefitter. Premier John Horgan called the announcement "transformative." 

"Tradespeople are building British Columbia and we need to value that work. We need to encourage younger people to enter the trades and we need to return tradespeople to the place where they can have family-supporting jobs because of certification," he said.

Rory Kulmala, the CEO of the Vancouver Island Construction Association, in a file photo from 2017. Kulmala is concerned that B.C. is facing a shortage of skilled trades workers that could hamper the industry. (CHEK News)

Kulmala said many trade programs at B.C. post-secondary institutions are at capacity, such as Camosun College in Victoria and Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo where he says there are long wait-lists and they can't move students through fast enough to meet demand.

He also said some training is organized by trades unions, such as bricklaying or tile-setting, and those sessions are often located in urban centres when rural workers could also benefit.

"I think we have to look at better training and access to that training,"  said Kulmala.

According to 2021 statistics from the B.C. Construction Association, 11,331 construction jobs will be unfilled in the province by 2030 due to labour shortages.

The construction industry is the top employer in B.C.'s goods-producing sector and contributes 8.9 per cent of provincial GDP — more than forestry, mining, agriculture and fishing combined.

Gregor Craigie spoke with Rory Kulmala, the President of the Vancouver Island Construction Association, about a labour shortage. 8:21

With files from On The Island, Rafferty Baker

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