As is now well recognized, increased public infrastructure investment at a time of rising unemployment can give a significant short-term boost to jobs, and also promote our longer-term economic and environmental goals. The same could be true of the goal of equitable access to good jobs.
A recent study for the Broadbent Institute by the Centre for Spatial Economics (CSE) found that infrastructure investments can significantly raise business productivity, mainly through increased transportation efficiency. Less traffic congestion and public transit and rail investments can also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector and help address the critical issue of climate change.
Appropriate procurement rules for expected new federal government infrastructure investments could also support needed training of the skilled trades workforce of the future, and promote more equitable access to good skilled trades jobs. About one half of the immediate jobs impact of increased infrastructure investment will be in the construction sector.
BuildForce Canada, a joint employer-labour forum on the labour market and on training for the construction industry, projects serious skills shortages to emerge over the next decade as older workers retire in ever increasing numbers. They underline the importance of increasing the number of apprentices, and also reaching out to non-traditional workers including women, aboriginal persons and recent immigrants, to fill up to one half of expected vacancies as traditional sources of labour supply dry up.
As shown by the Institute for Research on Public Policy and the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, as few as one in five employers of skilled trades persons support apprenticeship training. There is a serious “free rider” problem since employers who recruit apprentices and provide on the job training as well as time off the job for classroom training incur higher costs than those who poach skilled workers.
Another key problem is that as few as one in three new apprentices complete their qualification. This is due to many factors, including the temporary nature of most construction employment and the high frequency of workers moving from job to job. Apprenticeship hiring and completions fall when unemployment is high, while employers may be reluctant to provide enough time for training when business is booming.
Recognizing some of these structural barriers to apprenticeship training, the Conservative government promised in the 2013 federal budget to “support the use of apprentices through federal procurement” and to “encourage provinces, territories and municipalities to support the use of apprentices in infrastructure projects receiving federal funding.”
In the event, the federal government policy announced in June 2014 fell short and only asks potential construction and maintenance contractors to seek “Voluntary Certification” by providing information on their apprenticeship programs and their expected use of apprentices. Successful contractors are asked to provide information, but again only on a voluntary basis, on their use of apprentices in fulfilling the contract.
The bottom line is that there are no bid preferences or conditions imposed in direct federal contracts or on federally supported provincial and municipal construction projects with respect to employer support for apprenticeship training. Canada’s building trades have long called for such a requirement.
Nor are there any federal government procurement conditions that might promote greater employment equity in the skilled trades and in the construction sector generally. Despite growing recognition of the need for a more diverse workforce, the latest data show that the construction industry is still overwhelmingly (88.5%) male.
The broad occupational group of trades, transport and equipment operators is still 93.8% male, almost unchanged from thirty years ago. (We lack reliable, recent data on employment of visible minorities and aboriginal persons in construction but it is likely very low.)
Procurement conditions on public infrastructure investment can be a powerful lever for change. In the mid-1990s, the Glen Clark NDP government of British Columbia applied an employment equity lens to all hiring for the construction of the Vancouver Island Highway, and provided some training support to non-traditional hires.
A study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that 12% of the new hires at the peak of construction in 1998 were aboriginal persons, and 10% were women (with little overlap between the two groups.) Women and aboriginal persons each made up well under 1% of the overall construction work force at the time.
In the mining sector, there have been many examples of successful project agreements which have boosted skills training with a focus on participation by non-traditional workers, especially aboriginal workers.
The next budget will almost certainly significantly increase federal government investment in public infrastructure, both directly and through transfers to the provinces and cities. The Liberal platform stated, somewhat cryptically, that “we will work with employers and workers to determine an appropriate apprenticeship ratio for all federal construction projects.”
Hopefully the government will work directly and with the provinces and cities to require contractors to submit bids including training plans which support apprenticeship and promote greater access to good jobs for women, aboriginal Canadians and other traditionally under-represented groups.
Andrew Jackson is Adjunct Research Professor in the Institute of Political Economy at Carleton University, and senior policy adviser to the Broadbent Institute