Major projects offer upside to displaced forestry workers
Pulling out of the station
It seems contradictory, at the same time a major sawmill closure looms over Quesnel, costing 150 well-paying jobs, contractors report having difficulty taking on projects because they can’t find workers, according to Mayor Bob Simpson.
Between a $27-million hospital expansion, school construction and highway diversions, on top of private projects, Simpson said contractors there are scrambling to keep up.
“One of our biggest stumbling blocks in the community is that we’ve got critical job vacancies across the board,” said Simpson.
“That shocked everybody around the table,” Simpson said of a meeting related to the impending closure of Tolko Industries’ Quest sawmill, which will wind down by August.
“The reality is we need to look at (that) workforce and re-tool them for where the jobs are,” he said.
Then, on a provincial basis, there is the expected ramp-up for the LNG Canada liquefied natural gas mega-project.
Construction has remained at least a stable point in B.C.’s employment picture as the unemployment rate has shrunk to a nation-leading low of 4.3 per cent as of May.
Unemployment was a touch lower at the end of 2018, said Bryan Yu, deputy chief economist for Central 1 Credit Union, but it has hovered close to the four-percent mark for several months now.
“Though we have seen (some) uncertainty broadly in the global economy and are always concerned about some negative news from Alberta in terms of the domestic economy in Canada, the labour market is still chugging along,” said Yu.
Residential housing construction in B.C. is expected to see a decline along with the overall slowdown in real estate sales, perhaps by the end of this year, said Yu. However, that decline will likely be offset by major projects underway in the province.
RBC tallied a $4-billion surge in spending on major capital projects this year in B.C. as a key reason for upgrading B.C.’s economic forecast for this year, particularly with respect to the start of LNG Canada’s $40-billion plant in Kitimat.
“Employment growth continues to rise and has been rising since mid-2018,” Yu said, notwithstanding weak points, such as grim conditions in the forestry sector. Struggling with shrinking timber supplies and short-term losses in weak lumber markets, small towns in the Interior have been sent reeling with the announcement of sawmill production cutbacks and closures.
In May, Tolko announced the closure of its Quesnel mill followed by Canfor’s decision last week to shutter its Vavenby mill, which will put 172 people out of work as of July.
On Tuesday, Norbord announced the indefinite curtailment of production at its orientedstrand-board mill in 100 Mile House, which will mean 160 layoffs.
For some of those workers losing jobs in forestry, however, there are no guarantees.
“Undoubtedly there is an opportunity for those who have what we call the skills or transferable skills,” said Chris Atchison, president of the B.C. Construction Association. He said that for several years now the construction sector has been in what it considers a skilled-labour shortage, with electricians, welders and carpenters among the skills in most demand.
However, if a construction company is looking for ticketed welders, there isn’t a direct path for a forestry worker.
Simpson hears that caveat loud and clear.
“Those who don’t have immediately transferable skills are the ones we have to target and see what the path is for them to transfer into areas that have vacancies and job opportunities,” Simpson said.
And they face a radical adjustment from production jobs that are consistent to a sector where work is project-based and less consistent.
“But we’re at a time where the job opportunities are far more robust and opportunities exist than were (available) even five years ago,” Simpson said.
“That’s the fundamental difference.”
The Little Prince pulls out of the station on Thursday afternoon in Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park. The train runs Saturdays, Sundays and statutory holiday’s from 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., weather permitting.