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Canada's skilled job gap to meet net-zero housing goal? 57,000 workers

BuildForce Canada report suggests more jobs in retrofits, electrification needed to hit 2050 target

BuildForce Canada's latest report finds a substantial jobs gap if the country is to meet its 2050 net-zero target for housing. (Courtesy BuildForce Canada)

Canada will need to fill a construction jobs gap of almost 57,000 positions to meet its 2050 net-zero target for housing, an analysis by BuildForce Canada suggests.

In Building a Greener Future, the Ottawa-based construction industry non-profit analyzed the labour demand to retrofit millions of buildings that require electrification and energy-efficiency upgrades.

From 2023 to 2032, there is an anticipated urgent need for trade helpers and labourers, refrigeration and air conditioning mechanics, electricians, carpenters and contractors and supervisors.

Yet it comes at a time when Canada is already lacking construction workers on top of a housing shortage, putting a question mark over the net-zero target, the report says.

“We need to know what the labour force implications of achieving some of our net-zero or 2030 interim targets (are) – what the implications of that will be on top of what are already very busy but labour-challenged market conditions that we’re currently experiencing,” Bill Ferreira, executive director of BuildForce Canada, said in an interview with Sustainable Biz Canada.

The task ahead to green Canada’s homes

In an overview of the monumental work needed to reach net-zero for buildings, the report states there are 15.9 million homes in Canada, most powered or heated by fossil-fuel-based equipment as of 2020.

To reach the federal government’s 2030 emissions reduction goal, heat pump installations will need to increase to approximately 700,000 units per year by 2030 in both new-home construction and conversions.

Energy efficiency upgrades such as deep energy retrofits will be necessary for 819,000 homes from 2023 to 2032.

Investment into retrofits and heat pumps would be valued at $81.5 billon over the forecast period just for residential buildings, the report estimates.

The current green conversion rate of 2.5 per cent of homes every year is not enough to meet the 2050 deadline, even if all new homes being built are net-zero — and that is not the case.

More green jobs needed

Installing equipment and upgrading housing will require 56,900 new workers in fields such as energy-efficiency retrofits and fuel-switching. Combined with new net-zero builds, that figure rises to 96,000 jobs, Ferreira said.

Energy-efficiency retrofits drive most of the employment demand in BuildForce Canada’s analysis, creating a demand for up to 9,000 new jobs for trade helpers and labourers. Heating, refrigeration and air conditioning mechanics see an almost 400 per cent increase in demand from 2023 to 2032.

The need for heat pump retrofits could drive most of the push for as much as 16,300 new jobs in Canada’s residential sector from 2023 to 2032.

The need for retrofits is concentrated in Western Canada and Ontario because of the higher rates of natural gas heating, according to Ferreira.

But the push to green Canada’s buildings competes against another pressing issue: the need for more construction workers to build housing.

Canada not meeting the construction jobs demand

Citing the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s estimate of a 3.5 million supply gap for homes from 2023 to 2030, the number of trades workers needed to build housing may face a crunch against the labour for decarbonizing buildings.

The construction industry is projected to have a worker gap of 85,000 people from 2024 to 2034, Ferreira said, placing further strain on the industry.

He added there needs to be aggressive recruitment, re-training programs and reforms to immigration policies, but Canada is not on track to close the gulf.

Suggestions he gave include hiring more from groups underrepresented in construction, such as women, Indigenous Canadians and newcomers to the country, or allowing more skilled trades workers to enter the country as permanent residents.

“Achieving the targets set by the Government of Canada will require a significant increase in both consumer incentives and support programs, the cost competitiveness of these alternative solutions, and then on top of that, the additional workforce required to carry out these transition projects,” Kevin Lee, CEO of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, said in a release accompanying the report.

As jobs will also be lost in the energy transition, affecting people such as natural gas appliance fitters, it is critical to retrain them to related professions so they do not exit the construction industry.

“We can’t afford to let anyone leave,” Ferreira said.

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