By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter
Construction job numbers are down provincially since the beginning of the pandemic, but that doesn’t reflect the reality in the north, where major resource development projects and steady activity in residential, non-residential, and road-building, have kept the construction industry strong, said a B.C. business analyst.
“As much as there’s a bunch of bad news around from this virus, the resiliency of the northern communities and northern economies… is the hidden bit of good news in this whole pandemic circumstance we find ourselves in,” said Ken Peacock, chief economist for the Business Council of BC.
Many industries are doing okay, and some – the resource industries and manufacturing – have shown employment growth, said Peacock.
Productivity dropped in the construction sector under COVID-19, but not by much, said Northern Regional Construction Association CEO Scott Bone, who estimated companies lost about 20 per cent productivity due to public health protocols.
“Traveling to a worksite, we used to be able to throw four people in a crew cab and drive,” said Bone. “You can’t do that anymore.”
Now, it’s two people per truck, resulting in more vehicles, more fuel, more unplanned costs for the contractor and owner.
Contractors are adaptable
Fortunately, contractors are resilient and adaptable, and legally bound to get work completed on deadline, said Bone.
“They’re very quick to adapt to things that come at them very quickly,” said Bone. “We saw that when COVID hit them.”
COVID-19 hasn’t caused significant construction site shutdowns that Bone knows of, and none are in sight.
There are $120 billion worth of capital investments in B.C. in industrial and commercial projects ongoing or planned for construction or tendering this year or the next, said Bone. About $65 billion of that in the north, namely, the Coastal GasLink pipeline, the LNG Canada facility, and BC Hydro’s Site C Dam.
“All three of those projects are now ramping up,” said Bone. “We’re seeing a good uptake in the opportunities for the construction industry as a result.’
The Trans Mountain campus and construction camp have also generated employment, said Valemount Deputy Mayor Pete Pearson.
“Our local contractors have been working on plumbing, gas fitting, and electrical with the camp setup,” said Pearson. “So, there’s definitely been a positive spin off in the trades.”
The investment in major projects is so massive, procurement of goods and services have a big effect on the provincial economy, and while the spin-offs are concentrated in the north, economic benefits also flow down to Vancouver, said Peacock.
“Spending in Metro Vancouver kind of gets lost in the magnitude of the Metro Vancouver economy, so you don’t see and feel the impact as much,” said Peacock. “Up in the north, where the economies are smaller, the lift from these large projects is much, much more significant and much more beneficial.”
Many members of the 180 Northern Regional Construction Association are very busy, said Bone. “They’re working 24/7 to keep up with the work that they’ve got,” he said.
The same seems to apply to contractors in the Robson Valley.
“The hardware and the building supply stores are as busy as anything,” said Dannielle Alan, Area H director for the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George. “All of our contractors are absolutely swamped.”
2020 data wasn’t yet available, however, according to the Canadian Home Builders Association (BHBA), last year, new home construction, renovations and repairs created 1.3 million on and off-site jobs in Canada equalling $83 billion in wages. Of that $83 billion, about $159 million was paid in wages for 2,500 jobs in Prince George.
About 60 per cent of jobs were in renovation and repair and almost 40 per cent in new home construction.
“There’s actually a shortage of lumber,” said Alan. “People are doing so much construction and renovating.”
Valemount has several active residential and commercial construction projects as well, according to Pearson.
An affordable housing development is underway, along with some single-family residential activity, he said.
“We’ve had quite an influx of younger families moving to town,” said Pearson. “So, we’re seeing a few new builds.
“There’s the combined housing and daycare facility that’s pretty much almost shovel-ready,” said Pearson. “Generally, we’re in pretty good shape.”
The challenges facing the construction industry are skilled labour shortages, not a lack of available work, said Bone. More young people need support to take up trades such as electrical, plumbing and carpentry and the construction association is collaborating with the Prince George school district to help make that happen.
“There’s a huge gap between those that are going into the trades and getting trained and what we need going in the future,” Bone said.
Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / [email protected]