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Construction industry feels shortage of skilled trades

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Situation could stifle long-term growth in B.C.

The 2010 Olympics are six years away and the construction industry in the Sea to Sky corridor is booming, but according to several industry leaders there is a problem developing that could stifle any long-term growth in the region.

Amako Construction project manager Jonathan Silcock said that the chronic labour shortage in B.C. has already reached a level where companies are importing skilled workers from other provinces.

Silcock, who is managing the Whistler Creekside development, is now fighting the dropping temperatures to finish that project before the start of the ski season.

"The only thing that’s going to slow us down is a lack of bodies that know what they’re doing – trained tradesmen is what we need," Silcock said.

"There’s an incredible shortage of trained labour in this area and we’ve been saying it for a while that the schools need to start pushing this so we can get some plumbers, electricians and framers in the marketplace."

Amako is responsible for constructing many of the buildings in Whistler, from the Glacier Apartments, to the Roundhouse Lodge, but Silcock said the company has been forced to import skilled labour to keep up with demand.

"It’s going to be a real problem because the rental prices are so high, people just aren’t willing to live here.

"We’ve brought in partners from Regina but others are coming from out of province.

"And this is not just in the Whistler area, we build in Squamish and Pemberton and there’s shortages there as well."

Michael Geoghegan, president of the B.C. Construction Association, agreed with Silcock and stressed that there were many advantages in getting a trade.

"This is a problem that’s been compounding for the last 30 years because the baby boomers are now all getting older," Geoghegan said.

"There’s also been an encouragement of younger people to stay in school longer and pursue academic careers, rather than a vocational career.

"Now we’ve got no shortage of paper pushers, but we’ve got a shortage of people who do things like fix your car and your electricity."

The B.C. Construction Association recently warned that a shortage of skilled workers could result in as much as a 20 per cent increase in the cost of building Olympic facilities. Eleven Olympic and Paralympic venues need to be built. As well, major projects like the upgrade of the Sea to Sky Highway and a rapid transit line from downtown Vancouver to the airport and Richmond also face a 2010 deadline.

The shortage of blue collar workers is not just a B.C. problem; most western world countries are now struggling to find skilled workers.

"You know sometimes I pick up the paper and read ads from Australia that are inviting people to immigrate – these are the kinds of countries we’re competing with," Geoghegan said.

The wider problem is that whatever government and schools do now to encourage children to learn a trade, it’s not going to help the situation by 2010.

Geoghegan outlined three ways the B.C. government could improve the situation.

The first is to encourage young people to learn a trade. The other options are to invite skilled labourers back to British Columbia or to accept overseas workers.

Geoghegan was adamant that young people had a great opportunity to take advantage of the situation.

"To get into a lot of universities today you have to have a 90 per cent grade point average. Then you have to go to university for three or fours years to get a degree, which could be dubious, and then, in many cases you leave with a debt of $40,000-$50,000," Geoghegan said.

"With a trade you earn while you learn and at the end of the five year period you could be driving around town in a nice car or have enough money for a down payment on a house.

"And if you’re smart, which most people are if they get anywhere near a 90 per cent grade point average, then you could be running your own business in no time and then you’re earning six figures.

"The other option for us is to look at inviting B.C. natives back home.

"But a lot of them don’t want to come back, particularly when for $200,000 you’re going to have a nice house in Alberta, but here you’re looking at $400,000 for even a so-so house in most areas."

Geoghegan admitted that his organization had been speaking with several people that represent skilled workers who are based on the sub-continent.

"There’s a lot of people from places like India and Bangladesh that go to the Middle East to build skyscrapers over there.

"But when they hear about the opportunities in Canada, many of them want to come and work – and not just work, but set up a new life."

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