Immigration needs work, we need workers w/ Bill Ferreira
With a labour shortage that isn’t being solved with only Canadian workers the solution should be obvious: immigration. Canada’s immigration system has values built into it which make it hard to recruit tradespeople though, and when workers do make it to Canada their qualifications are often not recognised. So how do we fix it? Bill Ferreira has an idea of how we can make immigration work for everyone in Canada. He’s the Executive Director at BuildForce, where he’s helping to create a workforce of skilled trades professionals domestically and abroad.
This is Building Good. I’m Tim Coldwell.
There’s nothing glamourous about digging holes, or working in intense weather conditions. Think about how exhausting it is to coordinate tradespeople for your own bathroom renovation. Now imagine building an entire community.
Manual labour can be grueling and thankless. It’s tough to recruit for that at the best of times. But we’re in crisis times. And we’re in dire need of a labour force that can build the infrastructure and housing that’s critical to our future.
Skilled trades workers will be the real-life superheroes of our generation. So where in the world are they?
Bill Ferreira [preview]:
There’s a gap there that can’t be filled strictly through domestic. So unless that situation changes dramatically, we’re going to continue to rely on immigration. Immigrants are not coming here necessarily to replace Canadian workers; they’re coming here to augment the Canadian workforce.
Immigration is essential to the success of Canada’s built environment. Boomers and GenXs are ageing out of the workforce. And hundreds of thousands of jobs are opening up in the coming decade.
So just how crucial is the role of immigration in the construction sector? And what’s stopping it from growing as fast as we need it to?
Bill Ferreira [preview]:
The way the immigration system is currently set up, it’s a question of how you rank. And typically, skilled trade workers do tend to fall behind those individuals with higher levels of educational attainment.
Bill Ferreira has a big-picture idea of how immigration will build Canada’s future. He’s the Executive Director at BuildForce, where he’s helping to create an impressive workforce of skilled trade professionals—both domestically and abroad.
That’s a tough gig to be working for an industry that doesn’t have much curb appeal. It doesn’t even seem like a promising career path for people who want to move to Canada. It’s clear that there’s a shortfall between labour and the job market. And smart immigration policy could be a significant solution.
So just how big is the gap?
It has grown in the last little while, particularly coming out of the pandemic. We saw some of that last year. And in part, it’s the result of employment growing much faster than the labour force; and that has been driving down the unemployment rates in the construction industry. In fact, the July labour force survey, published by Stats Canada, actually reported a 2.7 per cent unemployment rate in construction. Which, from an economist’s perspective, is a little dangerous, because it means there’s not a lot of frictional unemployment in the actual labour market. And frictional unemployment being individuals moving from job to job.
When there isn’t a lot a frictional unemployment, you start to see and feel, as an employer, a significant pinch. Trying to find skilled labour that you need becomes very difficult. You hang onto employees, in some cases because you’re afraid to lose them—even though you may not necessarily need them for the next job. And the reality is is that, ah—and we hear this all the time from contractors—that many of them are actually turning down work right now because they just don’t have the bodies that they need to be able to fulfill those contracts.
You know, I’m really interested in the role that immigration will play in addressing some of these challenges. And the first place that my mind goes to is this—what I think is a myth—that immigrants will take jobs away from Canadians. And how would you think about that, with respect to the construction trades jobs that we so desperately need in this country?
Well, from my perspective, it’s not an either-or; it’s both. We have to continue to develop the, ah, labour force here in Canada. And there are many things that we can do. And government is certainly supporting a number of initiatives to try and encourage more individuals to consider careers in the trades as a career opportunity—particularly young people.
But, you know, we haven’t done a very good job of reaching out to women and also individuals from other under-represented or historically under-represented groups in the construction industry, such as the indigenous community and people of colour. Also newcomers, and refugees in particular.
So there’s a lot that we can still do domestically. That being said, the training capacity has been increasing to try and keep up with the industry’s demand for additional workers. But the reality is is that we are looking at a demographic challenge in this country that isn’t going to go away.
Twenty per cent of Canada’s population right now sits between the ages of 50 and 64. And the population under 15 accounts for only about 16 per cent of the population. So when you look at those numbers, you know that there’s a gap there that can’t be filled strictly through domestic—unless we see some significant increase in birth rates. And we haven’t had a positive fertility rate in this country since 1972. So unless that situation changes dramatically, we’re going to continue to rely on immigration.
And so, immigrants are not coming here necessarily to replace Canadian workers. They’re coming here to augment the Canadian workforce. We are seeing shortages across the country. And it’s not just construction; it’s all industries that rely on skilled trade immigrants. And we, frankly, need to see government policy shift away from the selection of the perfect immigrant, that has a PhD in Greek philosophy, that gets in the door immediately, whereas the individual who has 10 years of experience working as a—a carpenter falls to the back of the line and never gets selected.
So, Canada has a pretty good reputation globally. And I think a lot of people would love to come to this country. But what barriers might there be to folks who are a carpenter, an electrician, a plumber want to come to this country and work? What barriers might there be?
Well, the way the immigration system is currently set up, it’s a question of how you rank. And you get selected based on where you sit in the hierarchy that has been established based on the number points awarded for a variety of different skills, including language skills, and also validated job offers.
And typically, skilled trade workers do tend to fall behind those individuals with higher levels of educational attainment. So that means that it’s rare that when they do a take that they reach down far enough to pull those, ah, skilled trade immigrants that have actually made it into the pool.
Now, the government did introduce a program, some years ago, that was specifically designed to bring skilled trade immigrants into the country. But it’s a fairly small program. I think it’s still capped at about 5,000 workers a year. Which is hardly what the industry needs right now; and that’s not just construction trades. I mean, we could use 5,000 skilled immigrants coming into the construction industry a year for the next 5 years. But we’re also looking at cooks; we’re looking at, ah, chefs; we’re looking at a variety of other Red Seal trades that are also in demand across the country.
And the pressure has really fallen to the provinces to use their provincial nominee programs to identify those trades that are in highest demand and to put them forward.
But certainly more needs to be done. And we—we need to reorient our focus, because, ah, what we’re finding is is that the fact that we haven’t been selecting these types of immigrants, ah, for the past 30 years and giving them priority when selecting immigrants, they to come to Canada, we’re starting to see a shortage of skilled workers. And we’ve—we’ve seen that, ah, certainly in the construction. The share of foreign born individuals working in the construction industry has been in decline for almost 20 years. The overall share of foreign born working in Canada has been increasing.
So if the construction industry can’t find a way to address this, we’re going to continue to see declining—a declining share of immigrants coming to Canada working in construction, which is going to leave us with a systemic gap.
I’m also interested in kind of the, I don’t know, the language that society uses around tradespeople. You know, there’s this sense that, you know, engineers and architects and doctors and lawyers are the sorts of folks that we want in the country. And for some strange reason, the language around “skilled” seems to imply those sorts of professions, when in reality tradespeople are very highly skilled.
How do you think that those sorts of perceptions in society might be driving some of these policies?
That’s a very interesting question. We come up against this all the time, in trying to promote careers domestically to young people. And it does seem to be a societal bias that has been created in North America towards the skilled trades.
What is lost in all of this is that the skilled trades actually pay incredibly well—in some case, not very far behind many of the professions that you’ve just listed off. And there’s more to life, obviously, than money but that is certainly something that as a society we do seem to value.
The other thing that people forget is that many individuals that start out in the skilled trades are quite entrepreneurial, and they start their own businesses. And that’s just the nature of the construction industry. You start out working for a larger employer; you gain some experience. And once you’ve developed enough experience, maybe you get together with a couple other friends that are equally competent in their particular trade and you start your own business. And that’s the kind of organic turnover that we see constantly in the construction industry.
It really is a perception issue. It has to be addressed at the high school level. I think many individuals, particularly guidance counsellors, although well-meaning, they don’t really have much of an appreciation for the trades. So they don’t necessarily always do a very good job of explaining why a career in the trades might be superior to pursuing a career at university. Often parents that actually are working in the skilled trades, they tend to want to see their kids go to university. And those are issues that are really tough, ah, that I—we are going to continue to struggle with. But a lot of it is perception-based: that somehow the skilled trades are for individuals that are not very intelligent and certainly not capable of going on to university. And that’s not the case.
To get into an electrical program, you need to really understand math. Same with carpentry. You need the essential skills to succeed in this industry. And those are essential skills that need to be acquired at the high school level. And we need to do a better job of ensuring that young people appreciate that there are opportunities—and that’s not to disparage university but—that there are other career opportunities that could be considered, other than just going into university and pursing a Liberal Arts degree, as I did.
Politicians everywhere. Canadian society everywhere. We are committed to a clean-energy transition. And when you really think about that, the people that we need—the army that we need to actually accomplish a clean-energy transition are not more PhDs who are (inaudible, 12:07) scientists on climate change. But what we really need is we need electricians, and we need folks that can actually do this.
But what’s your sense of demand for construction services when you think about infrastructure deficit and you think of the work that’s required to actually do the clean-energy transition, how do those two things connect?
Oh, there’s a significant connection there. And when you layer in the goal of trying to get to Net Zero by 2050, the Royal Bank came out with a study last year where they estimated the additional cost, annual cost, should be about $5.5 billion to try and get to a point where we can meet that 2050 target.
The government is looking to pull, I believe, it’s 17 megatons out of buildings—to reduce essentially our carbon emissions by 2030. That’s a very laudable goal. But at the same time, the government also wants to double the number of new homes being built. So (laughs a little) the—the number of individuals that are going to be required to dedicate themselves to retrofitting existing buildings to try and meet those targets while, at the same time, trying to double the number of new homes we build in this country, it can’t be done with the current workforce.
A lot of buildings—and everyone keeps talking about the impact of technology and that technology is going to be a great saviour for, ah, the industry in many way. And—and that may be so where you can automate. When you’re undertaking a greenfield development, you can certainly use more automation than you can when you’re working in an urban environment with a fixed footprint in an existing building that you’re retrofitting. The applications, or the opportunities, to introduce high degrees of automation in that setting are very slim.
And the reality is is that you’re likely going to need more individuals working on those projects than you would (inaudible, 14:02) a greenfield development where you can plan for the use—the greater use of technology.
And a lot of the work that is before the industry right now will be conversions of existing buildings, to get them to Net Zero or near zero. That is going to keep the ICI sector very, very busy and the non-residential construction sector very, very busy. Where are we going to find the workforce?
Even if we could significantly increase our domestic capacity, it likely wouldn’t be enough to meet the present needs and the future anticipated needs that we’re looking at.
You know, that brings us back to the conversation around immigrants fulfilling some of those gaps.
You know, there’s a common story about highly qualified immigrants coming to Canada and ending up working in a different field completely. What’s the reality here? And how might that be impacting the construction industry?
I haven’t seen any measures, ah, related to the construction industry. But it—it is certainly something that has been reported on from time to time. Many newcomers to the country do not end up working in the industry that they intended to work when they initially emigrated. And as a result they are under-employed. And then obviously that has a significant financial impact on the country, productivity impact. It’s demoralizing to these individuals.
It does seem to dissipate over time. But certainly within the first five years after immigration, it does seem to be quite prevalent. And we need to find a better way to fix that problem. And usually, or in my opinion, the best way to do that is through a validated job offer.
If an individual comes into the country knowing full well where they’re going to be working and for you, they integrate not only much faster but they know exactly what they’re getting themselves into. And there isn’t that level of disappointment where, “I was promised the opportunity to come to Canada to work as a doctor, and now I’m driving an Uber.” That doesn’t happen quite as much as it used to.
It is complicated because it’s not something that the federal government directly controls; it is a provincial matter. But there is certainly an initiative of—and—and I think, you know, from a—a construction industry perspective, the biggest challenge we face—and we hear this all the time—“Well, why aren’t you doing a better job of recruiting newcomers to the country?”
Well, if somebody came over here to work as an environmental engineer, it’s a little late in the day for us to approach them and say, “Well, by the way, we’ve got this job as a carpenter that you may want to consider as an alternative.” “Well, that’s not why I came to Canada. I came to Canada because I wanted to be an environmental engineer. So now telling me that, well, I should give up on my hope of being an environmental engineer and I should consider an alternate career as a carpenter or an electrician…”—something that they may have no real understanding of or even acumen for. It’s really difficult to persuade those individuals that they need to consider—particularly since most of them are now in their early to mid 30s—trying to convince them that they should undergo additional schooling and basically restart their careers all over again, that’s—that’s a tough sell.
And so what we end up with are a lot of people that are very unhappy working in industries that they fall into because they can’t actually work in the profession that they had hoped to work in Canada when they emigrated. And that really is, I think, a real shame for the country, because there is a huge lost opportunity, based on the investment that we’re making, ah, in bringing immigrants into the country. If we can’t utilize their skills to maximize their—their skill usage, we are really missing out on an opportunity there.
So that’s something that needs to be fixed. And hopefully, as a result of certainly government efforts to try and address some of the inadequacies of the credentialing system that hopefully we will soon see, ah, some improvement on that front.
You know, from my direct experience, the pay delta between an unticketed carpenter and a ticketed carpenter is not huge. And there are many programs in place to very quickly take someone from unticketed, not creditialed for Canada to very quickly be ticketed. None of that works unless you have people in the door through the point system to begin with. Is there policy work that’s being done, right now, to help remove some of those barriers?
Oh, absolutely. A part of the challenge is that there’s a disconnect between what is recognized as work experience, or credential, in one country versus Canada. We have a fairly sophisticated system of being able to recognize credentials from Europe. It becomes a lot more complicated when we start looking at other countries that have less sophisticated systems or where individuals don’t necessarily pursue a formal credential but may have 10 to 15 years of experience in the industry. It doesn’t mean that they don’t know what they’re doing; they do. It's just it makes—it’s very difficult for an immigration officer to try and assess the validity of those skills when that individual is applying to immigrate. That’s the constant problem we come up against.
And so what we need to do, as an industry—and I think technology will help us with this—is a better way of assessing an individual’s skills, and finding a way to work with the government to validate those skills. So that we can provide some degree of assurance that the individuals actually have the experience level and competencies that they claim to have. And that, I think, would certainly help.
In terms of recognition of credentials, it really depends on the country. Ah. And there is some work being done by the construction associations. I think the B.C. Construction’s—or BCCA in British Columbia is certainly working on trying to do some of this, to help individuals essentially pre-assess themselves, and working with individuals considering coming to Canada, to try and help bridge that gulf. So that when they arrive, they know essentially what they have to do to get themselves recognized so that they can begin working right away in the industry.
How can people in the construction sector make an impact on pushing towards better immigration policy? You know, so if you’re, you know, the average trade contractor in Canada is a small/medium enterprise—maybe 30, 40, 50 employees or something like that—if you own one of those businesses, what can you do to have an impact?
Well, I think, ah, many of those individual firms would also be members of associations—construction associations. And I can certainly speak to the movement in Ontario, which I think effectively has certainly brought this issue to not only the ears of the Minister but to the ears of the Premier. And the Premier is now talking about the kinds of reforms that need to take place to fast-track the selection of immigrants that the Province actually needs. Certainly the skilled trades ranks very, very high among those.
I think individual firms, through their construction associations—their local construction associations and then up through the Canadian Construction Association, or Merit Canada, or the Progressive Contractors Association, frankly, even through the building trades, ah, Canada’s building trade unions—all have said that we need to find a better solution for selecting immigrants.
Nobody is suggesting that we use immigration and not pursue domestic recruitment and training. I think everyone is in agreement that the two have to go hand-in-hand. There’s a lot more than we can do domestically to try and increase the number of individuals we can train here in Canada. But at the same time, we also have to ensure that as the country changes—and the demographics of the country will change—and we’re going to rely more heavily on immigration for population growth, we need to ensure that the construction industry can continue to collect its share of those newcomers coming to Canada on an annual basis.
And the only way to do that is to reform the selection process. It’s not to try and convince, again, a doctor after the fact that they may—maybe should consider a career in the construction trades. We need to make sure that we’re selecting individuals that have the experience that we need, so that when they arrive in the country they can go to work immediately.
And there’s no faster way to integrate an individual that has arrived in the country than for them to find meaningful employment in an industry that en—they enjoy working in.
That’s a wrap on this season of Building Good. Thanks for checking out the show, and helping to build an industry for all. Please be sure to tell a friend about this podcast. And make sure you’re subscribed on your favourite podcast app.
Building Good is a Vocal Fry Studios production, supported by Chandos Construction and Bird Construction. The executive producer is Jay Cockburn. Our producer is Kattie Laur, with production assistance from Jessica Loughlin.
I’m Tim Coldwell. Thanks for listening.