Construction boom unable to budge Cape Breton’s stubborn unemployment rate

This story is part of a CBC Cape Breton series called The High Cost of Getting By. In the series, journalists examine how the rising cost of daily living is affecting islanders. Over the past few months, reporters from our newsroom have spoken to people who are struggling with the high costs of basic necessities like housing, food and home repairs.

With the construction of new hospital buildings, renovation projects underway and the construction of a Nova Scotia Community College campus in downtown Sydney, construction is in full swing with projects worth over a billion dollars in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

You might think a flurry of activity would reduce the island’s stubbornly high unemployment rate, but it’s stuck at more than double the provincial average, which historically is about where it usually is.

Now a group of companies are looking for ways to reduce that.

David Campbell, president of Jupia Consultants and hired by the Cape Breton Partnership to work on an economic development strategy for CBRM, said the island’s unemployment rate can be misleading because there are jobs available.

“Now this may not be the job you want that matches your skills, interests and education, but right now just about anyone looking for a job in the CBRM should be able to find a job,” he said.

The provincial unemployment rate in May was 6%, the lowest since 1976. Meanwhile, Cape Breton’s rate was around 13%.

Preliminary research for the Cape Breton Partnership shows that the region’s labor market has a higher percentage of seasonal workers compared to the rest of the province. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Part of the problem is that seasonal work is common in Cape Breton and tends to skew the numbers, Campbell said.

His preliminary research shows that about 30% of workers in Cape Breton report having received employment insurance benefits at some point during the year. By comparison, that number drops to about 11% in Halifax.

Meanwhile, 44% of workers in Cape Breton have at least one part-time job.

In addition to seasonality, these jobs tend to be low-paying and don’t fit well with the aging population, Campbell said.

“They tend to do jobs that were historically done by people on second incomes, by students and by people who were maybe younger, and now we have less of those people in the community and so we have a smaller labor pool to fill these jobs,” he said.

As others have said, one answer to Cape Breton’s persistently high rate is population growth through immigration.

A welder works on the upper floor of a new building being constructed in downtown Sydney as part of the relocation of NSCC’s Marconi Campus. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

“The real unemployment rate – if you cancel seasonality and you cancel the 32% of workers who work seasonally – it is much, much lower, and we will have to attract population as we see across Atlantic Canada if we are to meet labor demand and grow our economy for years to come,” Campbell said.

Changing the seasonal nature of work in Cape Breton is probably difficult, if not impossible, he said, and may not even be desirable.

“The number will go down over time, but I think the reality is that the community has a very seasonal economy and I certainly wouldn’t recommend cutting those industries and saying, ‘We don’t want the fishing industry, we don’t don’t want tourism, ‘because we want them,’ Campbell said.

“These are very important industries for the economy, but there may be more innovative ways to meet labor needs.”

Cape Breton Partnership CEO Tyler Mattheis says one way to reduce the island’s unemployment rate is to provide innovative immigration solutions to fill seasonal jobs. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Tyler Mattheis, CEO of Cape Breton Partnership, agrees.

“We have people who have built their lives around a cadence of employment and now many of them, like all of our population, are approaching retirement age and we have to look to fill them” , did he declare.

“For example, if you have two companies that together can hire someone full-time year-round, but each need that person at different times of the year, could they jointly apply for a worker comes to Canada and embarks on the path of citizenship and being part of our community all year round by working for two companies instead of one?

“Some innovation is needed and I think we’re going to continue to see a change in our culture, I think, of work here.”

Work continues on several new buildings near the corner of Esplanade and Falmouth streets in downtown Sydney as the NSCC Marconi Campus takes shape. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Mattheis said his agency is still working on an economic development strategy under a project called CBRM Forward.

A draft is being prepared following public engagement sessions over the past year and should be ready for more public comment later this year.

Meanwhile, the Nova Scotia Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration said in an email that there could be a variety of reasons why Cape Breton’s unemployment rate is higher than the rest. of the province, but he could not speculate on what factors might be important.

Trent Soholt, executive director of the Nova Scotia Construction Sector Council, says construction accounts for only a fraction of the total labor force and likely has little or no effect on the unemployment rate. (Submitted by the Construction Industry Council of Nova Scotia)

Some social agency workers say there are Cape Bretoners who would like to find a job, but are held back by barriers like education, self-esteem and past drug use.

There are also systemic barriers, including the lack of public transportation and affordable or accessible child care.

For years, Cape Bretoners have also traveled west for work, particularly in construction, but officials say that’s likely not a factor in the high unemployment rate.

Trent Soholt, executive director of the Construction Industry Council of Nova Scotia, said labor emigration has slowed in the past two years as activity in the oil sector wanes.

According to Statistics Canada, Nova Scotia’s total labor force in April was 481,500, with about 54,600 in Cape Breton. Of the provincial total, only about eight percent are under construction. (Statistics Canada)

Even though there is a lot of work now or to come in construction at CBRM, this sector represents only a fraction of the total workforce and probably has little or no effect on the rate. unemployment.

“Even if we as an industry are at full employment and full activity, we may not have much of an impact on that rate,” Soholt said.

Still, Soholt sees reason to be optimistic with billion-dollar plans underway to redevelop hospitals in New Waterford, Glace Bay, Sydney and North Sydney, and build a new NSCC Marconi campus in Sydney.

“The peak years are yet to come for these projects,” he said. “When we get into the carpentry work inside the building, we get into the mechanical work inside the building and the electrical work inside the building as well, and that’s really where we start to see more people employed directly on these projects.”

Jack Wall, chairman of the Cape Breton Building and Construction Trades Council in Sydney, says construction work has always been seasonal. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Jack Wall, business manager of the International Association of Sheet Metal Workers and Roofers Local 56 and president of the Cape Breton Building and Construction Trades Council, said the seasonal nature of trades work has been a problem. in the past.

When he entered the construction industry, he and most others had to head west to find enough work to rack up the hours needed to get a Red Seal certification.

Wall says with all the construction work available or coming, Cape Bretoners no longer need to hop on a plane and take off to find a job. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

“Now – and this should peak in a year or two – is the time when Cape Breton has a great opportunity for a lot of young people not to have to jump on a plane and take off to go find a job. somewhere,” he said.

In the past six months alone, Wall has put 30 new people to work on construction sites in Cape Breton.

“For a small local, this is unheard of,” he said.

Wall, business manager for Sheet Metal Workers and Roofers Association Local 56, says the union has built a training center in the Sydport Industrial Park where members can learn new skills. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The union has even built a training center in the Sydport Industrial Park where members can learn sheet metal, roofing and cladding skills inside a large structure, sheltered from the elements.

According to Build Force Canada, which tracks national labor market trends in the construction industry, Nova Scotia is one of the best provinces for work, with a boom expected to continue throughout this year. and in 2023, decreasing by 2027.

The agency predicts that residential construction jobs in Nova Scotia will increase by 3% over the next two years, despite a national rate that is expected to decline by 1%.

In addition, ICI construction—industrial, commercial and institutional—is expected to grow by 9% over the next two years, exceeding the national average of 6%.

The Nova Scotia government recently announced $2 billion in renovations and new construction in the long-term care sector. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

According to Build Canada, Nova Scotia “has entered a period of significant near-term growth” that must be managed with caution, as up to 5,200 construction workers are expected to retire over the next five years.

The industry will need to recruit about 6,200 new workers during this period to replace those who will retire and manage the new growth, the agency says.

In addition to work already underway, the Nova Scotia government recently announced about $2 billion in renovations and new construction in the long-term care sector.

Wall, for his part, is eager to see all the hard work and payoff that comes from creating thousands of new jobs on the island.

“There are things on the horizon for Cape Breton and I’ve never seen it this dynamic in probably – I’ve been doing this for 35, almost 40 years – and I’ve never seen this before for Cape Breton. -Breton, for the construction that is to say the work.”

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