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Booming construction industry leaves contractors scrambling to find workers

Vernon based contractor Alex Matusak says the shortage of workers makes running his business more complicated.
February 15, 2019 - 6:30 PM

OKANAGAN - Contractors in the Okanagan are having a tough time finding workers. With more people retiring from the construction business than are picking up the tools, combined with under-the-table operations cutting corners, construction firms in the Interior are left scrabbling for workers.

A study released this month by the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association found 78 per cent of Interior construction firms couldn't find the workers they needed and 37 per cent of firms predicted an increase in the volume of work for 2019. The report also says wages are set to rise by 4.8 per cent, over twice the rate of inflation.

Greenwave Construction Ltd owner David Federici says it's a huge struggle finding workers for his West Kelowna based firm.

"It's an ongoing problem," Federici says. "It's stopped the growth of our company."

Federici, who works predominantly in residential construction, says he's had to turn down contracts because he simply couldn't get workers. And after almost four decades in the industry, he says the situation has got "acutely bad" in the last two years.

LDR Construction employee Steve Foley adds some paint work during a basement conversion.
LDR Construction employee Steve Foley adds some paint work during a basement conversion.

And the situation doesn't appear any different for bigger players. Penticton's Greyback Construction, which mainly works on large institutional projects, also finds recruiting difficult. Spokesperson Kirsty Lindsay said getting enough workers is a challenge and the situation is getting worse. Lindsay said the firm also has to compete with the much higher wages from large projects in Northern B.C. and Alberta.

Part of a shortage of workers is because the baby boomers are retiring and young people aren't moving into the industry.

Statistics from Buildforce Canada show there are more workers set to retire in the next decade than there are people set to go into the trades. Buildforce Canada executive director Bill Ferreira says estimates show across B.C. 44,200 construction workers are due to retire within the next decade, while the province will need about 62,000 workers. Historical trends show the industry is set to draw in just 32,000 workers.

"It's going to leave a bit of a gap that needs to be filled," Ferreira says.

And it is a problem that was anticipateds, Federici says.

"But I don't believe the government's really done anything other than they think their apprenticeship program will solve the problem," he says. "But obviously that's not going to because we don't have the workers."

Another issue which has exacerbated the shortage of workers is the booming underground economy in residential construction. It's always been around but even after a lifetime in the industry Federici says he's "never seen it so bad."

Business owner Alex Matusak takes to the tools.
Business owner Alex Matusak takes to the tools.

It's an issue Vernon-based LDR Construction owner Alex Matusak says is making it really hard for legitimate companies like his.

"If you've got a truck and some experience and you've got five friends looking for work and you can go work for $45 an hour, why come and work for me for a portion of that?" he says.

Matusak says the booming construction industry has actually discouraged young people from taking on four-year apprenticeship programs because there is so much work they can make a lot more cash going out and working for themselves. Matusak says he'd happily take on apprentices but with young people making more without an apprenticeship, it's difficult. Another issue is that after four years the apprentices then often leave to make more money working for themselves.

Matusak doesn't begrudge them for it: "It's a financial decision, people need to make money."

Union organization B.C. Building Trades executive director Tom Sigurdson places a lot of blame for the labour shortage on the 2001 B.C. Liberal government.

"The previous government completely eviscerated the apprenticeship system and there were a lot of contractors that were standing up and applauding."

"[Businesses] don't want to take on the responsibility of having an apprentice on their payroll which means now after all these years... the apprentices have not gone through the system. That's one of the reasons we have a skill shortage," Sigurdson says.

But Matusak disagrees and says it's unfair to blame the industry when young people can go out and make more money without doing an apprenticeship.

"What 18-year-old kid has long term thinking? They want the quick [money] and the opportunity is there because the market is bearing this opportunity because there's so much work."

What they do agree on, is the increase in under the table contractors which doesn't look like it will change anytime soon.

New housing goes up at Okanagan Ave. in Vernon. You don't have to look far in the Okanagan to see a construction project underway.
New housing goes up at Okanagan Ave. in Vernon. You don't have to look far in the Okanagan to see a construction project underway.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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