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Formwork Labour Shortage
Short-term gap remains to be bridged
by Gord Stewart

There’s probably not a single construction-related skill set             UK Workers, a Vancouver-based construction recruitment
where demand isn’t trending well ahead of supply. Soaring activi-     agency, currently has a pool of some 3,000 certified British
ty levels and record-low unemployment have more than taken            tradespeople who are interested in work opportunities here.
up any slack in labour supply. The challenge, though sector-          Managing director Peter Miller says the company is already help-
wide, is particularly intense with respect to formwork and other      ing B.C. formwork contractors to fill labour gaps — but not to
concrete-related trades.                                              the extent it could.
   Various measures underscore the significant problem. One              “It’s coming in a trickle, but it could be a flood,” Miller says.
estimate of tower crane requirements for Lower Mainland proj-            The problem is process. Currently, formwork contractors
ects pegged the monthly average at 52 during 2004, while pro-         wanting to hire from overseas have to go through the expensive,
jecting it would more than double to 124 in 2006. And                 time-consuming and fruitless effort of advertising nationally to
provincial concrete consumption is expected to increase by 50         demonstrate the absence of qualified Canadian workers.
per cent this year, relative to 2002.                                    In contrast, expedited processes have been established for
   As a result — and despite one of the highest rates of wage         other sectors, such as IT, where there are similarly severe and
escalation of any trade — formwork contractors consistently           highly evident skills shortages. Visas can be issued on the basis
report difficulty finding enough workers to complete the work         of a job offer and security clearance alone.
available to them. Avoiding becoming over-extended is now a              Steelform and Whitewater are both going through this process
key priority.                                                         for the first time now. Steelform started its efforts at the begin-
   “I’ve probably turned down more work in the last two years         ning of November, and Reedman says he hopes to get the okay
than I did in the 20 years before that,” says Bill Reedman of         to bring two fully qualified journeymen to B.C. by the end of
Steelform Contracting in Maple Ridge. He adds that his company        March.
has the financial capability to be doing twice its current volume        That’s a five-month process — and it doesn’t align very well
of work.                                                              with the more typical two-month gap between making a bid and
   And it’s not just formwork contractors themselves who need         starting a job. Reedman adds that local workers have a big stake
to be concerned. Formwork is a labour-intensive and early-            in the issue. With two new journeymen in place to help train,
stage component of any ICI project. Cost increases and delays         Steelform anticipates hiring additional Canadians workers to
can wreak serious havoc with budgets and scheduling for an            round out the crews.
entire project.                                                          There’s a clear opportunity here for some short-term relief
   Formwork contractors are responding in creative ways. Kyle         with broad benefits. ICBA is asking federal and provincial gov-
Smith, of Whitewater Concrete in Burnaby, says his company is         ernments to explore ways of making temporary visas work better
becoming more involved in project design — identifying oppor-         for the construction sector.
tunities to complete formwork with less labour and at lower              Similarly, the time is right for a broader examination of selec-
costs. Increased use of flat-slab construction and self-compacting    tion criteria for permanent immigrants. An assessment of immi-
concrete is the emerging trend.                                       gration trends shows a dramatic shift in terms of education and
   Fundamentally, though, a labour shortage solution takes one        skill sets. Whereas in 1966 nearly a fifth of all immigrants had a
of two forms: recruiting and training more new entrants, or           trade or technical background, by 2004 that number had fallen
bringing in qualified workers from elsewhere. While there has         to just shy of six per cent.
been progress on training, this is a medium-term solution at             Of course, immigrant selection criteria need to reflect a wide
best. And we don’t yet have effective processes in place to bridge    range of considerations. But as specific labour shortages become
the shorter-term gap.                                                 a bigger constraint to growth, we would do well to better capital-
   New training programs specific to concrete formwork and rebar      ize on immigration’s potential as an economic-development tool.
installation were among the first to be approved by the Industry         Formwork contractors believe there’s no reason to expect a
Training Authority. Pilots of both programs are underway now —        slowdown anytime soon. The combination of Olympic-related
with a total of about 140 trainees registered in them — and the       projects, major infrastructure developments and a strong econo-
first graduates will be in the market shortly. Contractors involved   my mean plenty of work in the concrete trades for at least the
in program design and delivery of work-based training anticipate      next five years out — and quite possibly for longer.
good outcomes.                                                           We need a balanced action plan to meet that demand. A con-
   Effective training programs will also be key to turning around     tinued focus on high-quality, targeted training is part of the solu-
the productivity declines that are being seen across the construc-    tion — and will help ensure the hopper of new entrants is never
tion sector. Larger crews and slower turnarounds are an               as empty as it was a year or two ago. But to keep the concrete
inevitable result of a high ratio of junior workers on job sites.     flowing and the economy humming, we also need more immedi-
   But training takes time, and it will be several years before the   ate boosts to the supply of qualified workers. CB
improvements to B.C.’s industry training system allow us to
catch up to the overwhelming demand for formworkers.                  Gord Stewart is vice president of the Independent Contractors
   The short-term solution may require us to look further afield.     and Businesses Association — the 700-member voice of BC’s
The market for skilled tradespeople is increasingly global, and       open shop construction industry.
that creates opportunities to quickly address labour shortfalls
through temporary work visas for qualified foreign workers.


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