Infrastructure-ready talent key to recovery

by Matt Henderson
QUOI Media

In times of economic downturn, investing in infrastructure is often viewed as a way to stimulate the economy and expedite recovery.

U.S. President Biden just announced a $2-trillion infrastructure plan, in part to spur economic activity. Here in Canada, despite less-than-ideal progress on a 12-year, $188-billion Investing in Canada Plan, the truth is that economic and labour market recovery will depend in part on our ability to get building.

But today’s infrastructure investments stand to fulfill additional objectives than those of the past. Rather than solely solving for construction sector unemployment, we need solutions for job losses that have disproportionately affected women and racialized workers. Rather than just building bridges and ports, we need infrastructure investments that stand to help Canada achieve its digital and net-zero ambitions.

The 2021 federal budget laid the groundwork for policies and programs that will enable workforce development and a more inclusive labour market. This is an important start. But as Canada develops a comprehensive plan to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to better support those who will put the “build” in building back better.

First and foremost, this will rely on broadening the source of talent. Canada’s construction industry was facing labour market disruption well before the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the country, the sector is dealing with an aging workforce, with projections suggesting the need to replace almost 260,000 workers – 22% of the current workforce – in response to retirements over the next decade.

The shrinking supply of construction sector talent represents a huge opportunity in response to an economic downturn that has displaced women, people with disabilities, racialized and Indigenous peoples to a much greater extent than other groups. Smart, focused efforts to recruit and retain a broader pool of workers should be a strategic priority. Where efforts are underway to diversify the talent pipeline, they should be scaled and extended. Financial supports must now be accompanied by wraparound supports like job shadowing, mentorship and childcare.

The next priority will be to ensure the workforce has the skills required to build, repair and maintain a different kind of infrastructure, one that includes high-speed broadband, electric vehicle charging stations and rural public transit. With ambitions to reach net-zero by 2050, Canada needs a greater focus on green retrofits and passive buildings. These pragmatic, incremental improvements require a workforce ready to implement them.

While new entrants can be trained with these transitions in mind, there will also be a huge role for lifelong learning. Changing skill requirements are already a reality for those working in construction, engineering, management and the green economy. With new infrastructure investments, a renewed focus on upskilling and reskilling will be required to keep up with new building materials, the evolution of consumer preferences and emerging sustainable practices.

Where speed is critical, micro-credentials are an increasingly popular way to train individuals in new or emerging areas, like mass timber construction. Navigating both employers and workers to such programs will be integral to ensuring infrastructure investments can meet our aspirations for a digital and green recovery.

Finally, we must nurture and support our apprentices. It is no longer good enough to attract young people to the skilled trades only to see half fail to complete their training. Here, a better connection between supply and demand must be managed.

To do so, the government’s election commitment to establish a Canadian Apprenticeship Service requires some refocus. Rather than another wage subsidy program, the Canadian Apprenticeship Service should identify priority trades and coordinate locally curated solutions to support apprentice completion. Leaving apprentices at the mercy of the labour market without support clearly isn’t working.

Given the requirement for a sustainable talent pipeline, it is also time to get serious about mandating apprenticeship positions on federally funded infrastructure projects.

The ability to recover, restart and reignite Canada’s economy will depend on our ability to deliver on our ambitious infrastructure goals. There is no shortage of prospective projects across the country, and with $188 billion committed, no shortage of available funds either. Budget 2021 is a start, but the only way for us to deliver on these investments and actualize these projects are with people. Let’s not forget about those that do the building.

Matt Henderson is Senior Policy Analyst at Polytechnics Canada.