British Columbia was among the provinces hit hardest by the impacts of COVID-19 in 2020, recording the first material decline in construction employment in more than a decade. The strong pullback was felt in new housing, and commercial and industrial building construction, which experienced double-digit declines in investment compared to 2019.
The overall losses were only partly offset by rising major project demands, including the LNG Canada facility, Site C dam, the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion, and numerous public-transportation projects. The decline follows a period of rapid growth that translated into a 20% increase in construction employment over the four years prior to 2020, which drove down unemployment and led to the emergence of widespread recruiting challenges.
Construction is poised for renewed growth in 2021, as major project demands continue to rise and industrial and commercial investment recovers. Non-residential employment is expected to rise by 11,400 workers to an anticipated peak in 2022. Much of the anticipated growth in construction investment is concentrated in the Lower Mainland region, driven by several major transportation and other major public-infrastructure projects. The pace of residential employment growth is constrained in 2021, driven by continued weakness in new-housing construction, where a modest decline in housing starts is expected, particularly in condo and apartment construction.
The challenges of meeting the ramp-up in major-project requirements have been somewhat lessened by increased mobility potentially from other sectors that weakened in 2020, but mobility may be limited for some trades where specialized skills and experience are needed to meet near-term peak demands. Over the decade, industry growth increases the labour force by more than 18,600 workers – up 10% compared to 2020. Industry must also address the need to replace an aging workforce, with an estimated 41,000 workers, or 22% of the current labour force, expected to retire. Combining retirement and expansion demands, the construction industry will need to recruit close to 59,650 workers over the coming decade. This demand may be partially met by up to 35,150 new entrants under the age of 30 available locally, but a significant portion of remaining demand will need to be drawn from other industries or other provinces.
Provincial Residential Sector
Residential construction in the province declined sharply in 2020, as COVID-19 impacted both new-home construction and renovation work. Housing starts fell sharply due to lower demand from reductions in migration to the province and lower investment for condos and apartments. COVID-related mandatory lockdowns and travel restrictions in 2020 reduced population growth and new household formations.
As the economy fully reopens and travel restrictions are reduced, international migration to the province is expected to resume. Renewed population growth translates into a rise in housing starts between 2022 and 2024.
The Available Labour Force
The residential labour force is projected to increase by almost 8,600 additional workers to keep pace with expansion requirements over the decade. The expected retirement of nearly 24,300 workers during this period will increase the overall recruitment requirement to close to 32,800 workers. The addition of an estimated 19,674 new-entrant workers under the age of 30 from local recruitment efforts will help to moderate labour force pressures, but unless recruitment is increased, a cumulative deficit of 13,166 workers is expected to emerge over the scenario period.
Provincial Non-Residential Sector
British Columbia is entering the steepest period of expansion that has been building over the past five years. Major-project demands are expected to intensify in 2021 and rise to a peak in 2022. These projects include ongoing work at Site C, LNG Canada’s export terminal and related TC Energy Coastal GasLink pipeline, the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion, Pattullo Bridge Replacement, and transit, education, health care, and other infrastructure projects. Investment in ICI (industrial, commercial, institutional) building construction declined in 2020, but is expected to post strong growth between 2021 and 2022 with the stacking of several major health care and education infrastructure projects, as well as spin-off work related to major engineering projects. Investment remains elevated over the mid-2020s supported by growth in commercial building construction and continues to rise after 2025, as population growth drives demand for commercial and institutional buildings, while a weaker Canadian dollar is anticipated to drive manufacturing and primary-sector growth. Over the long term, continued growth of the province’s population supports increased spending on utilities, transportation, and road infrastructure, contributing to gains in engineering investment between 2027 and 2030.
Underrepresented Groups Of Workers
Building a sustainable and diverse workforce will require the construction and maintenance industry to increase recruitment from groups traditionally underrepresented in the current construction labour force, including women, Indigenous people, and new Canadians.
In 2020, there were approximately 32,700 women employed in British Columbia’s construction industry, of which 34% worked on site, directly on construction projects, while the remaining 66% worked off-site, primarily in administrative and management-related occupations. Of the 175,900 tradespeople employed in the industry, women made up 6%. The top five trades and occupations in which women tend to be employed are trades helpers and labourers (22% of all tradeswomen), construction managers (17%), painters (12%), contractors and supervisors (9%), and carpenters (7%).
The Indigenous population is another underrepresented group that presents recruitment opportunities for British Columbia’s construction industry. In 2020, Indigenous people accounted for approximately 5% of B.C.’s total working-age population. The Indigenous population is the fastest growing in Canada and has a higher propensity to choose the construction industry as a potential career choice. Based on the 2016 Census, an estimated 7.6% of non-Indigenous Canadians were employed in the construction industry, compared to 9.6% for the Indigenous population. The Indigenous population is also more likely to work in heavy-industrial construction, as approximately 30% of Indigenous people working in construction work in the sector, compared to 20% of non-Indigenous workers.
B.C.’s construction industry may also leverage new Canadians (immigrants) over the coming decade to meet labour requirements. The province is expected to welcome an average of 69,000 new international migrants annually between 2021 and 2030, making the immigrant population a key source of labour force growth. British Columbia’s construction workforce is made up of approximately 24% new Canadians. Historically, a key source of immigrants to the province were Europeans, who tend to have a higher propensity to choose the construction industry. Currently underway, however, is a shift that has seen a significant rise in immigration from Asia (China and India), whose citizens may have a lower tendency to consider employment in the construction sector. Due to Canadian immigration policies and selection criteria, persuading individuals upon arrival to consider careers in the trades may be challenging, particularly for those with professional training outside the skilled trades that are seeking employment in other sectors of the economy. As immigrants will make up an increasing share of the overall Canadian population over the next few decades, additional recruitment efforts will be required to ensure the construction industry continues to recruit its share of new Canadians into the labour force.