Canadian Manufacturing

Alberta could face skilled labour shortage despite oil patch troubles

A construction industry association says the exodus of workers from the oil sector will be compounded by retirement

EDMONTON—Alberta could be forced to deal with a shortage of skilled labour despite layoffs in the oilpatch, unless companies and governments keep training new workers, an industry group warns.

BuildForce Canada is projecting a loss of 31,000 construction jobs due to the downturn in the oilsands over the next four years, with many of those people heading to other provinces.

“A skills vacuum is a real risk with the exodus of interprovincial workers within and outside the resource industry,” Rosemary Sparks, the group’s executive director, said Monday.

The effects of the sputtering energy sector are expected to ripple out to residential and non-residential construction, she said.

BuildForce Canada is forecasting the construction sector in Alberta will not bounce back until 2020.

The “skills gap” will be exacerbated by the retirement of thousands of baby boomers by the end of the decade, Sparks said.

Alberta has been through such boom-and-bust cycles before, but factoring in a large number of retiring workers at the same time will make dealing with the downturn more complex.

“That’s why it’s crucial for industry to stay focused on recruiting young people and attracting and keeping those skilled trades that are, or will be, in the most demand.

“We can’t wait for that cycle to turn around to start recruiting workers to replace the retiring workers. We have to make sure that we continue to replenish the workforce.”

Sparks said it takes four to five years to train a tradesperson through an apprenticeship program.

Some of the trades include carpenters, electricians, boilermakers, welders, pipefitters and heavy-equipment operators.

Sparks said companies will have to look at ways to keep skilled tradespeople on the job, such as doing maintenance work on major projects.

Governments and companies also to need maintain apprenticeship training programs.

“There is a role for employers and for governments to make sure we continue to have that system.”

Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador could also lose skilled workers due to the energy industry slump and retirements.

Skilled tradespeople are expected to seek work in provinces such as British Columbia, Ontario and Manitoba that have more construction projects on the drawing board, Sparks said.

ATB Financial, Alberta’s Crown-owned bank, is forecasting the first half of 2016 to be the roughest yet in the current economic downturn, with unemployment projected to reach up to eight per cent. Last January, the unemployment rate in Alberta was 4.7 per cent.

ATB is projecting more people could leave Alberta this year than move in, a migration pattern that hasn’t happened since 2010.

BuildForce Canada calls itself a national industry-led organization representing all sectors of Canada’s construction industry. It receives some funding from the federal government.

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