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Supply of skilled tradespeople can’t keep up to Vancouver Island construction boom

Thousands of positions will be needed by 2030, despite flow of Camosun trades students
The number of skilled trades workers available is not enough to fill the current construction boom in Greater Victoria. (Black Press Media file photo)

Vancouver Island development projects are swallowing up skilled tradespeople faster than local schools can produce them.

This year Victoria has seen a spike in building permits, after construction was classified as an essential service by the province, said Vancouver Island Construction Association president Rory Kulmala. “Building permits have never been higher,” he said.

The Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation reported 216 new housing starts in Greater Victoria this January; a nearly 370-per-cent increase from the 46 January housing starts in 2020. Correspondingly, the total value of January 2021’s building permits rose 41.3 per cent from last year to $143 million.

A boom for housing, condos and other multifamily residential buildings has driven the construction demand, said Kulmala. “It’s protected our economy because of the amount of work that’s on.”

READ ALSO: New housing starts, value of building permits up in Greater Victoria

A healthy economy is reflected in the housing boom as well as the construction association’s recent increase to 460 members across Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast, he said. Likewise, the United Association Local 324 union representing Victoria skilled trades workers has grown 20 per cent to around 1,040 members in the last three years, according to business manager Jim Noon.

The union takes members directly from Camosun College’s School of Trades and Technology. The school’s carpentry, electrical and plumbing programs saw headcounts of over 1,200 in 2016, 1,300 in 2017, and over 1,400 for each year between 2017 and 2020 for a total of 6,951 trained students in the last five years, according to data from Camosun College. The school’s architectural trades and carpentry program has a waitlist, said program leader Albert van Akker.

Nevertheless, a lack of skilled labourers has spelled delays for construction projects; on June 14, Greater Victoria School District cited labour pressures and Victoria’s building boom as one reason for the delay of Victoria High School’s reopening by one year in September 2023 following seismic and size upgrades.

READ ALSO: Victoria High School seismic work, expansion a year behind schedule

If construction demand stays near its current levels, a shortage of skilled labour – and thus length and price tag for construction projects – will only increase as tradespeople retire over the decade, said Kulmala. “We’re running into numbers of 10,000 to 15,000 positions going unfilled by the year 2030,” he said.

An uptick in skilled trade labourer wages and benefits would entice a fill of the demand, said van Akker. “If you’re trying to attract people, you have to compete the same way every other employer does,” he said. “You have to have a competitive compensation package and a healthy workplace.”

More effort should also be put into presenting skilled trades as a career to high school youth, noted Noon.

“We need to make sure shop classes are put back into high schools,” he said. “The trades are a great career option to go down. I’m not seeing the push with career counsellors in that direction. I think that’s going to fill the demand going forward.”

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