Nfld. & Labrador

Major projects propping up N.L.'s job market during oil downturn

With N.L.'s economy teetering on the breaking point, a nagging question looms: How bad would the situation be if the province didn't have thousands of workers employed on major construction projects?

Casualties of the Collapse: Roughly 10,000 workers employed at Muskrat Falls, Bull Arm and Long Harbour

Major projects prop up N.L. economy

Here and Now

5 years ago
CBC's Terry Roberts reports on t 2:48

With Newfoundland and Labrador's economy teetering on the breaking point, a troubling question looms: How bad would the situation be if we didn't have thousands of workers employed on major construction projects in the province?

A rough estimate indicates that, as of late 2015, approximately 10,000 workers were employed on three major construction projects:

  • The Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.
  • The Hebron offshore oil project at Bull Arm.
  • The nickel processing plant in Long Harbour.

Together, those jobs account for five per cent of the province's workforce.

They're highly paid, but short term. 

As well, there are no obvious opportunities in the pipeline to fill the void when these projects are completed in the coming years.

Envy of other provinces

The construction boom is the envy of most other provinces, and is helping to sustain employment at a time when rock-bottom commodity prices are causing turmoil and massive job cuts in the oil and mining sectors.

These well-paying construction jobs are helping to offset a shrinking workforce in Alberta's oil patch, where thousands from Newfoundland and Labrador made big money during the boom years by commuting back and forth to Western Canada.

Russ Walsh of Bay Bulls is one of thousands of people helping build the Hebron oil platform at Bull Arm. He expects to work there until the end of this summer. After that? He's not so sure. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

The offshore oil and mining sectors have also been hit hard, with an estimated 800 jobs having disappeared over the past year, according to Statistics Canada.

It's a bad time. It's going to be a bad time for a while- Russ Walsh

The effects of major projects on the economy are evident most evenings on the Trans-Canada Highway between Arnold's Cove and Sunnyside.

That's when the shift change takes place at the Bull Arm fabrication site, where the massive Hebron oil platform is under construction.

Hundreds and hundreds of vehicles form a ribbon of lights, snaking its way to the highway, carrying workers home after a day of building the $14-billion platform.

These workers earn big wages, and this translates into big spinoffs for many communities and businesses.

It's a powerful visual, and a reminder of how important these major projects are to the job market at a time when the unemployment rate has swelled to 14.4 per cent.

Elaborate news homes under a cloud of uncertainty

One of those depending on work at Bull Arm is Russ Walsh, 36, of Bay Bulls.

"I'm good until probably end of summer this year. After that, it's really up in the air," Walsh said during an interview outside his home on the Southern Shore.

Construction began on the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in January 2013. There were roughly 5,300 people working on the project as of November. (Nalcor Energy)

Walsh's wife is finishing her education and hopes to be working soon.

That's dampening some of the uncertainty, but his neighbourhood in Bay Bulls is like so many others: elaborate new homes and expensive vehicles, all now under a dark cloud. 

"You can see it and you can feel it. It's not a very good mood now," he said. 

"It's a bad time. It's going to be a bad time for a while. I worked with a lot of people offshore in the past, and they're being laid off. It's a tough time right now," he said.

How long will it last?

While the numbers vary, depending on the work being done, officials with the Hebron project say roughly 3,300 people were working at the site at the end of last year.

There were roughly 5,300 people working on the Muskrat Falls project in November, the vast majority of whom live in Newfoundland and Labrador, and construction is expected to ramp up again this spring at the Long Harbour nickel plant.

"I'd say we'd be pretty bad off it we didn't have those few projects on the go ... cause it's keeping a fair amount of people around here in work," Tom Jennings of Torbay said in a recent interview. 

"Then again, I don't know how long that's going to last either," added Jennings, who worked for the past nine years at a remote camp in northern Alberta before learning he was being laid off. 

"Bull Arm is keeping a nice many people employed right now ... but it can't keep us all," noted Jim Whiffen, of Rushoon, an electrician who has watched about half the people at his work site in Alberta lose their jobs over the last few months.


Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.