Building opportunities

Building opportunities

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story | Contributors: Pam Sullivan | Published: September 5, 2023

The construction sector, like many others in the province, is experiencing a boom in demand and opportunity, while at the same time experiencing quite the opposite when it comes to the labour/supply side of the equation.

The Nova Scotia government, in response, is directing companies within the sector to take advantage of two immigration stream programs designed to help with just these kind of labour shortage issues, while at the same time helping achieve the province’s population targets.

The Nova Scotia Provincial Nominee Program (NSNP) and the Atlantic Immigration Program (AIP) were both launched to help address economic and labour market needs through immigration.

The NSNP, created in 2003 under the Canada-Nova Scotia Agreement on Provincial Nominees, gives prospective immigrants who have the skills and experience targeted by the province a chance to be nominated to immigrate here. The AIP, launched in 2017 as a pilot under the Atlantic Growth Strategy, had a goal of helping employers hire foreign skilled workers and international graduates they could not fill locally — becoming permanent in 2022.

Jill Balser, Minister of Labour, Skills, and Immigration, points out that labour shortages, such as those currently occurring not only in the Nova Scotia construction sector, but in many others as well, says the problem is not ours alone.

“Labour shortages are a reality across the country and globally,” Minster Balser says. “But we have a recruitment strategy to support the sector and have recently launched a new international brand to ensure Nova Scotia stands out in this competitive landscape.”

Additionally, and to immediately respond to the construction sector’s labour issues, the province’s Immigration, Population and Growth (IPG) branch — as a result of data collected through labour market information and consultations with homebuilders, renovators, and specialty subcontractors — has hosted and participated in 23 Canadian and international events, with a combined 9,000 contacts made, and 1,345 follow-ups with skilled workers who showed interest in relocating to Nova Scotia.

Hand in hand with marketing and recruitment and just below the surface of the issue, says Mike Milloy, Manager, Research & Analysis within the Corporate Policy Service branch of Labour, Skills and Immigration, are a number of solutions that are wider in scope than most people might realize, including the creation of apprenticeship programs through The Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency (NSAA).

“The construction sector is an area where there’s a lot of focus on recruitment and retention, as well as trying to get people into apprenticeship programs,” Milloy says. “The NSAA look 10 years out to get a sense of how many apprentices will be going through the system in that 10-year period.”

Milloy’s department, which looks at labour market information, advises government and other departments; with a public-facing information stream which, he adds, is shared with outside communities, including researchers and academia, as well as for people looking to come to Nova Scotia for work.

With unprecedented growth over the last few years — both in HRM as well as throughout the province — Milloy says the government is “very focused” on helping the construction sector, where and how it can, to meet the increasing demands of growing populations, while also admitting that getting an accurate read on a supply-demand imbalance is not always easy.

“Because there’s a high demand for construction workers right now, whether that be carpenters or general laborers, or some of the specialty construction trades, it’s sometimes difficult to tell just how many we may be short,” he says. “It’s kind of hard to tell from the statistics we have available.”

The province has an annual target of attracting 25,000 newcomers to the province each year to fill key labour needs in specific sectors, including construction, with an ultimate goal of reaching two million residents by 2060; by all accounts an achievable goal if rapidly growing populations in towns and cities around the province are any indication.

But as with most situations, the reasons and issues for any problem are often complicated and myriad, with the construction industry challenges — despite best efforts around staffing — not being any different.

Trent Soholt, Executive Director of the Nova Scotia Construction Sector Council (NSCSC-ICI), when talking about the situation, acknowledges the challenges facing both his members as well as the province itself.

“The industry itself, from a demand side, is increasing exponentially to a degree that we’ve never seen before in the province,” he says.

A large part of the equation, says Soholt, is how to help the provincial government navigate some of what’s happening. And as the Council does that, he says, how it also works to ameliorate some of the problems for the industry with its own creative solutions.

“Over the last few years, we’ve been looking at recruitment, retention, and how to provide opportunities for new entrants into our sector,” he says.

Admittedly not as straightforward as it seems, Soholt says the devil’s really in the details.

“At the Sector Council, we’ve created a number of models to forecast, by occupation, what the need will be, but this is where it gets complicated,” he says.

What he’s referring to is at times not just a straight labour supply problem, but also a skill-associated and timing issue, where specific projects — for example a hospital build — require specific skills, which may be in demand across the board, or just in short supply overall. This, in conjunction with, as Soholt says, “the nuances” of a project, and hold-ups can happen for a variety of reasons — including supply chain interruptions. So, like the proverbial iceberg, there’s often more going on below the surface of the water than above.

“If say, structural steel or rebar don’t arrive at a site where the workforce is, we’ll often see that workforce being redirected to another project,” he says. “So, is that a labour supply issue? Probably not in that case. Is it alignment or a timing issue? Most likely.”

And though some labour issues, as Soholt notes above, might be tied to hold-ups along a complicated and sometimes unreliable supply chain — only made worse by COVID — many more are just a straight numbers game, with not enough workers — skilled and otherwise — to fill openings; close to 300 construction-related job posts in the first six months of 2023 alone, according to Mike Milloy’s office.

A multi-pronged or all-hands-on-deck approach appears to be the most logical path forward. It’s a matter of bringing more interested workers to the province, but it’s also about improved education, reaching out to youth to consider the trades early on, apprenticeship, and targeting often underserved groups.

The province is working on all fronts to help right the imbalance, including working with the (NSAA) to assess international candidates’ credentials; a crucial, perhaps often overlooked step in the process. Trent Soholt says the NSCSC-ICI, for its part, has developed a program to recruit those who have typically been underrepresented in the sector and provide training to make them work-ready and employable.

“The Bridging Community and Industry (BCI) Program really focuses on the skilled trades, and we’re having success rates of 11 out of 12 participants being hired upon graduation,” Soholt says. “Through employment NS we’ve been able to access some funding to provide a living allowance and childcare, and supports to help alleviate the barriers that, say, a young mother might be facing, or a newcomer might be facing in terms of say, feeding their family.”

Collaboration appears to be the way forward for both the province and the sector: the province continuing to consult with the construction industry to make sure they’re aligned in terms of whether or not IPG activities are addressing the needs of the construction and skilled trades employers in the province, and both the NSCSC-ICI and the Construction Association of Nova Scotia (CANS) attending recruitment events and giving valuable feedback to direct the efforts of the province.

Out of the box thinking may also be a crucial part of any plan going forward, and that, as both Mike Milloy and Trent Soholt both point out, is not just throwing everything at the wall and hoping something sticks.

“Education and training are two of the things that my department is really focusing on right now. It’s not just bringing people in and hoping they fit the need,” says Milloy.

And Soholt’s final thoughts on immigration programs as part of the solution?

“It’s a process, and there are some nuances to the process that make it wonderful, but also make it challenging. So, we’re constantly working with the province and partners to find ways to really see that as an opportunity. And we’re working with organizations like ISANS for transition pieces. All that to say we’re very supportive of immigration being part of the solution.”

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story

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