More than 80 per cent of Saskatchewan's non-union contractors believe the current labour shortage is the worst in the province's history, with nearly three out of four unable to hire a journeyperson within three months and four out of 10 unable to hire at all.
Merit Contractors Association Saskatchewan, which represents 225 "open-shop'' or non-unionized contractors employing more than 4,000 workers in the province, also said 85 per cent of its member companies are having difficulty retaining employees.
The association recently commissioned a survey of its members to determine the extent of the labour shortage and its impact on construction activity. Karen Low, executive director of the association, said the survey indicated that the labour shortage was a much bigger problem than previously thought.
"(Until) the last year, even our sector didn't realize how dire it had become,'' Low said. "I don't think anybody anticipated (the growth in construction activity)."
With two-thirds of companies having difficulty retaining skilled employees, combined with the cost of finding and training new employees, the labour shortage is delaying some projects and driving up the cost of construction, she said.
Wages increase as contractors try to attract and retain employees with better benefits, company-sponsored training, profit sharing and bonuses. Those higher labour costs eventually are reflected in higher construction costs.
"When wages start going up," Low said, "there are only two things that can happen. (Either) that cost is passed onto the customer or the profit margins shrink. I think there's bit a bit of both happening.''
While there's no hard evidence that projects are being delayed or even cancelled due to the labour shortage, Low said there's plenty of anecdotal evidence.
"If you have 10 (employees) one day and the next day you have six, that ultimately impacts how well you can do your job and how quickly," Low said.
The Merit Contractors are calling on government to increase the number of training seats at SIAST and other technical institutes, encourage more First Nations and Metis to enter the trades, expedite the transfer of skilled tradespeople from other provinces and increase immigration of skilled workers.
Michael Fougere, president of the Saskatchewan Construction Association, which has 1,200 membercompanies, including members of the Merit Contractors Association, said the survey results didn't surprise him at all.
"I wouldn't dispute those numbers," Fougere said. "I would say we have the biggest challenge ever in terms of finding skilled workers.''
But Fougere questions whether many projects have been delayed or cancelled due to the shortage.
"Rarely do we see projects that are not completed on time," he said. "There are a few, but it's rare, even in this market, that we see any project delayed or cancelled because of a lack of workers to do the work.''
Fougere said out-ofprovince firms, union and non-union, are coming into Saskatchewan to get a piece of the action, which is also increasing the demand for skilled trades.
"There have been investments in training seats, but it clearly isn't keeping up with the demand,'' he added.
Don Morgan, minister of advanced education, labour relations and workplace safety, said the government is well aware of the labour shortage and has been working on several fronts to address it, including increasing the number of training seats by 50 per cent.
"We've offered $1,000 scholarships for high school students to enter the trades," he said. "We've had the premier (Brad Wall) over in Ireland this year. We anticipate that a minimum of 400 or 500 people will come over from that - We're aggressively seeking people from other parts of Canada and we're trying to do everything we can to educate people in the province through apprenticeship and SIAST programs.''
The province has also doubled the ratio of apprentices to journeypersons and cut waiting lists for trades training, Morgan added.
"We're getting a handle on it, and we will do more as time goes on," he said. "We thought we were managing relatively well, so this came as a bit of surprise that it's as bad as it is, so we will continue to staff up and ramp wherever we can.''
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