Fiona further setback for construction industry that is still short workers

Giuseppe Meazza

New construction work is slowing down on P.E.I., and there are more Islanders working in the trades, but Fiona has added pressure on an industry that has been running overheated for years.

“The industry is working at about 127 or 128 per cent right now,” said Sam Sanderson, general manager of the Construction Industry Association of P.E.I.

“It’s tough sledding out there.”

With P.E.I.’s rapidly growing population has come the need for new housing and other infrastructure. The construction industry has struggled to keep up with the demand.

Seventeen-year-old Sam Cassibo and 22-year-old Bradley Keus hope to be part of clearing up the backlog.

Bradley Keus in workshop
Bradley Keus is glad to hear demand is high for workers. (CBC)

The two are currently enrolled in a 20-week Youth in Trades program sponsored by the construction association last week. The program includes a variety of trades — drywalling, finish carpentry, plumbing — as well as safety protocols and general life skills.

Keus said working in construction is a natural choice for him, but he hasn’t nailed down exactly what trade he might get into.

“Using my hands every day, and just trying different things. I’m in the process of finding out what I’d like to do,” he said.

Sam Cassibo inside workshop
Sam Cassibo wants to be able to look back on how he helped build things. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Keus is excited about the prospects in the industry right now.

Cassibo also feels a connection to building.

“I want to be able to see my work in the future and say, I was part of that,” he said.

Employment in construction up

Keus and Cassibo are looking to join an industry that has had some success in recruiting young people over the last year.

Following a shortfall in recruitment in 2021, which saw the industry shed hundreds of jobs, 2022 saw a bounceback. From January to October the industry averaged 7,500 jobs, 27 per cent more than in 2021.

A significant number of those new workers are young. The industry jumped from 800 workers aged 15 to 24 to 1,400 this year. With the industry expecting a large number of retirements in the coming decade, those workers are particularly welcome.

In addition to the new workers, demand appears to be falling. Investment in building construction is down 13 per cent this year, and the value of building permits issued is down 2.3 per cent.

While there may be some relief, said Sanderson, the demand for workers remains very high.

The average age on worksites is still too high, says Sam Sanderson, general manager of the Construction Industry Association of P.E.I. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

“It’s absolutely great to see some new, younger workers coming into the workforce within the industry, but it’s a far cry from what’s really needed,” said Sanderson.

“We continue to have huge labour shortfalls.”

Added stress

What the numbers on building investment and permits do not yet reflect is the impact of post-tropical storm Fiona.

Fiona roared over the Island at the end of September, tearing up roofs and crashing trees down on buildings, and consequently creating a lot of work in the construction sector.

Ajay Punnapadam outside
Repairing the damage from Fiona is setting the industry back more months, says Ajay Punnapadam, owner of Confederation Construction and Interiors. (Submitted by Ajay Punnapadam)

“We’re getting from bad to worse and Fiona has added a lot of woes to existing problems,” said Ajay Punnapadam, owner of Confederation Construction and Interiors.

Punnapadam depends a lot on subcontractors to get projects done, and Fiona meant a lot of those subcontractors were suddenly not available.

“The first thing that the trades would do would be to help themselves, safeguard their own roofs, then help their families and their friends, and then it would come to helping the general public,” he said.

It could be almost a year before the damage is cleared up, he said, and the industry can turn back to the new construction and renovations that Islanders had been already waiting months to get done.

Read more stories in CBC P.E.I.’s Job Shift series here.

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