Construction labour shortage weighs on Alberta businesses as growth accelerates

Alberta’s population boom is increasing pressure on the construction sector to build the infrastructure to accommodate growth and business owners say they’re already feeling the labour crunch. 

A shortfall of workers in skilled trades is an issue across Canada, but with Alberta adding more than 200,000 new residents last year, the industry needs to find a way to keep up with more road and bridge repairs, new housing development and major infrastructure work.

“It’s literally the No. 1 issue on everyone’s mind,” said Independent Contractors and Businesses Association Alberta president Mike Martens.

“From the sewage lines underneath the water treatment plants to the roads, bridges, hospitals — all these things that really create the amazing life we have in North America is old infrastructure,” he said.

“We’ve taken it for granted, and now it’s needing fixing, and we don’t have the people available to fix it.”

Industry group BuildForce Canada forecasts Alberta will need to replace almost a quarter of its 2023 labour force within a decade.

While the province’s younger population relative to some other parts of Canada should help make it easier to close the gap, factoring in growth means there could still be a shortfall of 22,000 workers by 2033.

Statistics Canada data shows Alberta’s construction job vacancy rate jumped to 6.7 per cent in the third quarter of 2023. In comparison, in the five years leading up to the start of the COVID pandemic in 2020, the province’s construction job vacancy rates never exceeded 3.5 per cent.

Gary Zeitner is senior vice president of Edmonton-based civil construction firm Abalone Group of Companies. (Madeline Smith/CBC)

Gary Zeitner is senior vice president at Abalone Group of Companies, a civil construction firm. The company employs heavy equipment operators that do the excavation and grading work to prepare for the next stage of construction — it’s the bedrock of virtually any infrastructure project, whether that’s a new residential subdivision or an industrial project.

“We do not bid on all of the opportunities that are out there, and the reason is entirely about our labour force,” Zeitner said.

“We have an asset base of equipment that would allow us to do much more work than we’ve done in the last five years, but we simply can’t get the labour force that would be able to make use of all of that equipment.”

Operating the excavators and other equipment involved in the

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