VANCOUVER – What happens when the force of a global pandemic collides with a country going over a demographic cliff? Wages go up. Even as construction employers face a very uncertain future for the provincial economy, a shortage of skilled workers continues to be the major theme in the annual Independent Contractors and Businesses Association’s (ICBA) 2021 Wage and Benefits Survey.
ICBA President Chris Gardner released the results of ICBA’s annual survey of approximately 1,000 construction companies across B.C. on Wednesday morning.
“It seems counter-intuitive to expect wages to jump 7.7% over the next two years at the same time employers are planning for less construction work, but that is how tight the B.C. labour market has become,” said Gardner.
Construction in B.C. now employs more than 240,000 people and accounts for 9 per cent of the provincial GDP. This year, survey respondents said they expect to give their workers a 3.5% raise; in 2022, they expect another 4.2% increase.
The effects of COVID-19 were certainly felt by construction companies, which limited 2020 pay increases to just 0.5%, roughly the rate of inflation. Companies also report fewer tenders for new projects; just 38% of companies expect more work in 2021 than they had in 2020.
“We are far off what used to be the norm of more than half of all construction contractors expecting more work in the coming year,” said Gardner. “The percentage of contractors who foresee a decline in business in 2021 is almost twice as large as last year. While the north and Vancouver Island remain relatively optimistic, the Lower Mainland and rest of B.C. are very nervous.”
Despite construction being deemed an essential service, ICBA estimates that COVID-19 still reduced construction volumes by 15% in 2020 and is forecasting a further decline of 5% in 2021. “Keeping close to a quarter-million men and women working on construction sites through a global pandemic provided an important life-line to many families and communities across B.C. over the past year – but uncertainty about the future is the buzzword for 2021,” said Gardner.
The survey showed there is still strong demand for workers in all regions of the province. Every single glazing, insulation, and steel company surveyed noted they needed more glaziers, insulators and steel fabricators respectively. 94% of mobile crane/equipment companies said they needed more skilled operators; 92% of roofing companies are looking for roofers, and 91% of pipefitter employers are on the hunt for more labour.
“If you’re looking for work, construction remains a strong option,” said Gardner. “British Columbia is going over a demographic cliff, with a workforce that is rapidly aging out. There is incredible opportunity in construction for young people, entrepreneurs and skilled trades workers. That’s why ICBA continues to ramp up our public outreach, and we’re proud to be the single largest sponsor of trades apprentices in B.C.”
“Before COVID-19, there was a lot of concern in the business community about what higher taxes, increasing regulation and red tape, and delays in project approvals were doing to the B.C. economy,” said Gardner. “The pandemic has magnified that concern.”
As vaccines are being deployed and there is light at the end of the long, dark COVID-19 tunnel, ICBA believes that one of the key tasks for the NDP Government is to rethink their approach to attracting investment and creating jobs and opportunities.
“We heard from the Premier during the pandemic that ‘we are all in this together’,” said Gardner. “The Premier’s job now is to ensure that everyone shares in the recovery together, that government does not pick winners and losers or cut deals with special interests – every worker deserves a fair shot at fully participating in our economic recovery.”
The ICBA Wage and Benefits Survey also noted:
- Interior: 37% of contractors expect more work in 2021 than last year; 54% say they are short of workers, especially electricians, plumbers and labourers.
- North: 56% of contractors expect more work in 2021 than last year; 67% say they are short of workers, especially carpenters and labourers.
- Vancouver Island: 54% of contractors expect more work in 2021 than last year; 64% say they are short of workers, especially labourers and carpenters.
- Lower Mainland: 35% of contractors expect more work in 2021 than last year; 61% say they are short of workers, especially plumbers, labourers, carpenters, and electricians.