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Sharing is caring: How a program is trying to retain young construction talent in rural Alberta

Three construction associations created a worker-share program in a bid to encourage young construction workers to stay in rural Alberta — and so far it's working.

Pilot project shares workers among rural Alberta construction companies

In a bid to encourage young construction workers to stay in rural Alberta, the Medicine Hat Construction Association and Alberta Construction Association proposed a worker 'loan' program to ensure employees have consistent work. (Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Three construction associations created a worker-share program in a bid to encourage young construction workers to stay in rural Alberta — and so far it's working.

A variety of factors can impact the construction industry in rural Alberta, such as a project's nature of work, an aging workforce and a limited number of people moving into those communities, a spokesperson for the ministry of labour and immigration told CBC News.

But when John Digman noticed young talent leaving the construction industry in Medicine Hat, Alta., he knew he had to act.

"There are a lot of downturns in industry and people get laid off," said Digman, executive director of the Medicine Hat Construction Association. "They maybe go to one of the bigger accommodations — Edmonton, Calgary — and they don't come back sometimes."

Digman partnered with the Grande Prairie Construction Association and the Alberta Construction Association. They reached out to the provincial government, pitching a pilot project that would fund companies to share workers for projects in rural communities.

If a company were to win a number of project bids, for example, it may not have enough people to do the work required. Meanwhile, another company that lost those bids may have to lay off its employees because of a lack of work, Digman explained.

John Digman, executive director of the Medicine Hat Construction Association, noticed young talent leaving the construction industry in the southeastern Alberta city. He knew he had to act to retain them. (CBC)

The proposed pilot would allow companies with less work to lend their employees to companies with more work that are in need of workers, he said.

"What we'd love to do is say, 'Okay, I trust you as a company... How about I loan some of my workers through to you?'" Digman said.

"When the project's finished, they come back to us and hopefully we've got a bit more work then."

Some contractors had already been doing this on an ad hoc basis, Digman said.

After conducting further research and surveys from the community, Digman said it made sense to pursue the project.

The pilot project was accepted, and is related to government spending $3.6 million, over three years, on more than 620 work-integrated learning opportunities under an industry voucher program, a spokesperson told CBC News.

The ministry of labour and immigration has spent $185,500 through workforce partnership grants to the Alberta Construction Association to support the pilot project, as well as address the shortage of skilled construction workers in rural Alberta, the spokesperson said.

The four-phase project is in Phase 3, connecting companies in the Medicine Hat and Grande Prairie, Alta., areas. 

The current phase runs until February, and will expand to include companies in Fort McMurray, Red Deer and Lethbridge.

'We need to work together': contractor

Dave Jeneke, owner of Pad-Car Mechanical, a Medicine Hat contractor, says the pilot project has gone well so far — and may prove helpful in keeping workers in the industry down the road.

Pad-Car Mechanical, which employs about 60 people, specializes in plumbing, heating design and installations. So far, Jeneke said, the company has loaned five workers for a project at the MCF feedlot in Brooks, Alta., a city in southeastern Alberta.

"There's no layoff, [workers] make the same wage, benefits are the same and it helps them feel like they're still part of the team," Jeneke said.

The ministry of labour and immigration has spent $185,500 through workforce partnership grants to the Alberta Construction Association to support the pilot project, as well as address the shortage of skilled construction workers in rural Alberta, a ministry spokesperson said. (Charles Haynes/Flickr)

Among the shared workers is Dalton Grover, a 24-year-old plumber. Grover, whose father and grandfather were also tradesmen, has worked in construction since he was 18.

Being part of the program has made it easier to stay close to family, as well as expand his skill set, he said.

"[I] got to meet new people, see how other companies do things," Grover said, referring to his experience working in Brooks. "The guys that were there were very good and helpful... [They] taught me a lot in the steam fitting world."

Jeneke said the pilot appeals to workers, in part, because any associated costs, such as accommodations and mileage, are covered by the employers — and they keep their benefits.

That added security may help retain workers in the construction industry, he added.

"The trades pay well... but [if it's] not the highest paying trade, the guys can perhaps go work on a pipeline, or they can get get a job working at a wind farm, or something that's paying a little bit more," Jeneke said. "With the prices of everything going up, I don't think they have too much of a choice.

"Much as we are competitors, we need to work together to keep our workforce happy, and here working in our area."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mrinali is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has worked in newsrooms across the country in Toronto, Windsor and Fredericton. She has chased stories for CBC's The National, CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup and CBC News Network. Reach out at Mrinali.anchan@cbc.ca

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