Construction boom unable to move Cape Breton's stubborn jobless rate
Officials say Cape Breton's unemployment rate is typically double N.S. provincial average
This story is part of a series from CBC Cape Breton called The High Cost of Getting By. In the series, reporters examine how the rising cost of daily living is affecting people on the island. For the last several months, reporters from our newsroom spoke with people who are struggling because of the high costs of basic necessities like housing, food and home repairs.
With new hospital buildings going up, renovation projects on the go, and a Nova Scotia Community College campus being built in downtown Sydney, construction is booming with projects worth more than $1 billion in Cape Breton Regional Municipality.
You might think that flurry of activity would put a dent in the island's stubbornly high unemployment rate, but it is stuck at more than double the provincial average, which is historically about where it usually sits.
Now a business group is looking at ways to bring that down.
David Campbell, president of Jupia Consultants and hired by the Cape Breton Partnership to work on an economic development strategy for CBRM, said the island's unemployment rate can be deceiving, because there are jobs available.
"Now, it might not be the job you want that's aligned with your skills and interests and education, but right now, just about anybody looking for work in the CBRM should be able to find a job," he said.
The provincial unemployment rate in May was six per cent, the lowest it's been since 1976. At the same time, Cape Breton's rate was about 13 per cent.
Part of the problem is that seasonal work is common in Cape Breton and tends to skew the numbers, Campbell said.
His preliminary research shows about 30 per cent of Cape Breton workers report having collected employment insurance at some point during the year. By comparison, that number drops to about 11 per cent in Halifax.
Meanwhile, 44 per cent of workers in Cape Breton hold at least one part-time job.
In addition to seasonality, those jobs tend to be low wage and are not a good match for the aging population, Campbell said.
"They tend to be in the jobs that historically were filled by second-income earners, by students and by individuals that maybe were younger, and now we have less of those folks in the community and so we have a smaller labour pool to fill those jobs," he said.
As others have said before, one answer to Cape Breton's consistently high rate is population growth through immigration.
"The real unemployment rate — if you back out seasonality and you back out that 32 per cent of workers that work seasonally — it's much, much lower, and we will have to attract population just like we're seeing all across Atlantic Canada if we want to meet workforce demand and grow our economy in the years ahead," Campbell said.
It's likely difficult, and maybe impossible, to change the seasonal nature of work in Cape Breton, he said, and it might not even be desirable.
"The number will come down over time, but I think the reality is the community has a very seasonal economy and I certainly wouldn't recommend reducing those industries and saying, 'We don't want the fishing sector, we don't want tourism,' because we do want them," Campbell said.
"They're very important industries to the economy, but there may be more innovative ways to address the workforce needs."
Tyler Mattheis, CEO of the Cape Breton Partnership, agreed.
"We have folks that have built their lives around a cadence of employment and now many of them, like our entire demographic, are approaching retirement age and we need to look at filling them," he said.
"For instance, if you have two companies who together can hire someone full time, year-round, but each need that person for different parts of the year, could they apply jointly to have a worker come to Canada and get on a pathway to citizenship and be part of our community year-round working for two companies instead of one?
"Some innovation in that is required and I think we're going to continue to see a shift in our culture, I think, of work here."
Mattheis said his agency is still working on an economic development strategy under a project called CBRM Forward.
A draft is being prepared following public engagement sessions over the past year and is expected to be ready for more public input later this year.
Meanwhile, the Nova Scotia Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration said in an email there could be a variety of reasons why Cape Breton's unemployment rate is higher than the rest of the province, but it could not speculate on which factors might be significant.
Some social agency workers say there are Cape Bretoners who would like to find a job, but are held back by barriers such as education, self-esteem and former drug use.
There are also systemic roadblocks that include a lack of affordable or accessible public transit and child care.
For years, Cape Bretoners have also travelled out West for work, especially in construction, but officials say that is not likely a factor in the high unemployment rate.
Trent Soholt, executive director of the Nova Scotia Construction Sector Council, said out-migration for work has slowed over the last couple of years as activity in the oil patch eased.
Even though there's plenty of work now or coming soon in construction in CBRM, that sector only represents a fraction of the total workforce and likely has little or no effect on the unemployment rate.
"Even if we as an industry are at full employment and full activity, we may not impact that rate a whole lot," Soholt said.
Still, Soholt sees reason for optimism with billion-dollar projects underway redeveloping hospitals in New Waterford, Glace Bay, Sydney and North Sydney, and building a new NSCC Marconi campus in Sydney.
"The peak years are still to come for those projects," he said. "When we get into the carpentry work inside the building, we get into the mechanical work inside the building and the electrical work in the building as well, and that's really where we start to see then more people employed directly on those projects."
Jack Wall, business manager for the Sheet Metal Workers and Roofers International Association Local 56 and president of the Cape Breton Building and Construction Trades Council, said the seasonal nature of trades work has been a problem in the past.
When he got into the construction industry, he and most others had to head West to find enough work to accumulate the hours needed to earn a Red Seal certification.
"Now — and it should hit the high peak in another year or two — this is the time that Cape Breton has a great opportunity for a lot of young people not to have to jump on a plane and take off to go find a job somewhere," he said.
Just in the last six months, Wall has put 30 new people to work on job sites in Cape Breton.
"For a small local, that's unheard of," he said.
The union has even built a training centre in the Sydport Industrial Park where members can learn sheet metal, roofing and siding skills inside a large structure, out of the elements.
According to Build Force Canada, which tracks national labour market trends in the construction industry, Nova Scotia is one of the top provinces for work, with a boom that is expected to continue throughout this year and 2023, tapering off by 2027.
The agency predicts residential construction jobs in Nova Scotia will grow by three per cent over the next two years, despite a national rate that is expected to shrink by one per cent.
In addition, ICI construction — industrial, commercial and institutional — is expected to grow by nine per cent over the next two years, beating the national average of six per cent.
Build Canada says Nova Scotia "has entered a period of significant short-term growth" that has to be managed carefully because up to 5,200 construction workers are expected to retire in the next five years.
The industry will have to recruit about 6,200 new workers over that period to replace those retiring and to manage new growth, the agency says.
In addition to the work that's already underway, the Nova Scotia government recently announced around $2 billion worth of renovations and new construction coming in the long-term care sector.
Wall, for one, can't wait to see all of the work and spin-offs that come from having thousands of new jobs on the island.
"There is some things on the horizon for Cape Breton and I've never seen it this vibrant for probably — I've been doing this for 35, almost 40 years — and I've never seen this before for Cape Breton, for construction work that is."