Nov 5, 2011 – 8:00 AM ET | Last Updated: Nov 4, 2011 3:21 PM ET
Look out over most Canadian cities and you see construction cranes dotting the skyline, dozens of them and maybe more if you live in Vancouver or Toronto, the epicentre of a building boom that has been gaining steam for the better part of a decade.
Primarily the activity is around condos but there’s also hospitals, roads, sports stadiums and office towers — not to mention Alberta’s oil sands.
As the rest of the world grapples with the European financial crisis and sluggish growth in the United States, the cross-country construction boom has been Canada’s ace in the hole, providing the key economic building block that has been so lacking around the world: jobs.
While the savage housing collapse in the United States has left employment in the construction down 6.7-million from its 2008 peak, the number employed in Canada has soared to a record over the past two years. Even after a 20,100 give-back in October as the labour market softened overall, employment in the sector stood at 1.257-million, just above the previous November 2008 high.
The boom, supported by low interest rates, has helped spurred a virtuous cycle of job creation and consumer spending that has allowed the domestic economy to push ahead despite international turmoil.
“The great thing about construction is that it’s so local,” said Helmut Pastrick, chief economist for Central Credit Union 1, the main trade association for credit unions in British Columbia and Ontario. Unlike sectors like, say, banking or shipping where operations are often spread across a large geographically area, construction is much more focused, so the economic benefits stay local as well.
That goes especially for labour, which can’t be outsourced and provides one of the few sources of well-paying jobs to unskilled or unqualified workers such as immigrants, a key factor to the health of communities given this country’s traditionally high immigration rate.
That is the other thing. Unlike most other manual labour, it’s relatively well-paid. Due to labour shortages and high turnover, employers are willing to loosen the purse strings to keep valued workers. That means some take home $150,000 -plus a year.
For an immigrant from Guatamala or Somalia or Portugal, it’s a ticket to middle-class life and a future, as it was for successive waves of new Canadians going back more than a century. Inside FP Reporter John Greenwood chronicles the stories from Canada’s hard hat nation:
Santiago Martine has been working construction for 17 years, day in, day out, winter and summer.
A carpenter, Mr. Martine has been part of the work crew at a condo project on Toronto’s Queen Street West for the past six months, stripping formwork off concrete walls and pillars.
Next door, a massive new mental health centre is going up while across the road another condo tower is taking shape. The street is clogged with delivery vans and cement trucks while the local coffee shops are clearly benefiting from the hard-hat trade.
Asked what the boom means to him, Mr. Martine looks around at all the building activity.
“It’s amazing,” he says with a grin. “This means more money for families, more stability.”
If there is such a thing as a Canadian Dream, he has achieved it.
Born in Ecuador, he emigrated to Canada in the early 1990s in his mid-20s. He has raised three sons (one is in university, another in construction and the third owns his own company). He’s also helped his mother, his sister and her husband to follow him to settle in Canada as well.
A broad-shouldered man with his hair in a ponytail, Mr. Martine speaks with a mild accent.
Construction jobs are demanding, but the pay checks are generous. As a union member, he makes about $34 and hour and a lot more for overtime.
“I had the opportunity to go to Alberta but I didn’t go,” he says. “I got kids here, I got a wife here. The most important thing is family.”
Evaristo Rei and Domenic DiIorio first met as apprentice electricians 22 years ago and they’ve been working together on and off ever since.
Mr. Rei, who goes by “Everett” when he’s with friends, is a foreman. Both are part of a team of half a dozen electricians at a 20-floor condo tower at the corner of Bathurst and St. Clair.
For Mr. Rei, 45, the construction boom is a double-edged sword.
No one who wants to work is without a job for long. The trouble is, it’s hard to find good workers when you need them.
A slim, wiry man, he appraises a visitor with a critical eye, like he’s on the lookout for mistakes.
“I hear there’s more cranes in Toronto than any other city in the world,” he says during a coffee break. “So it’s good. But at the back of your mind you’re wondering who’s buying all the condos. But they wouldn’t be building them if people weren’t buying them.”
Mr. DiIorio has been working steadily since the recession of early 1990s when he briefly made a living doing home repairs.
“I was a ‘Mr. Handyman,’” he says.
Both men have always stayed close to Toronto, despite the allure of Alberta where a person with a half-decent trade can pay off a new pickup in two months if they’re lucky.
“We work for a good company,” says Mr. Rei. “They take care of their people, it’s not just about profit. There’s not a lot of companies like that.”
Like many in the industry, they live outside the city where houses are more affordable.
Mr. DiIorio, 42, lives in Brampton while his friend lives in Bolton. Both get up around 5am and get home around 12 hours later.
Most sites are a United Nations smorgasbord of nationalities, unlike previous decades when Italian and Portuguese were the predominant languages.
“You wouldn’t believe how far guys come,” says Mr. DiIorio. “But jeeze, there’s a lot of work. Just look at all the cranes!”
At 66 George Battaglin has just about seen it all. Trained as an architect, he’s currently a site manager for a small contracting company in Woodbridge but he’s been in the business for 41 years.
Construction “can be a good life for someone,” he says. “I think it’s a great industry – I mean, it powers the whole frickin’ city.”
Mr. Battaglin gave retirement a shot a while back but it didn’t appeal. “I was going nuts,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever retire. I’ll keep working as long as they’ll have me.”
Divorced, he has three grown kids and he lives in the suburb of Etobicoke. Over the years he’s worked in plenty of places, including Florida where he spent 13 years starting in the mid 1990s, and Alberta where he did a stint in the 1980s.
For the past several months he’s been working on a tower in downtown Toronto, and it’s been a challenge. The site itself is small with little room for storage and the traffic is always thick, making it almost impossible to get materials unloaded.
Lots of people would love to have jobs here but they lack the skills people like Mr. Battaglin are looking for. “We’re talking about craftsmen,” he explains. “When there’s so much work it’s hard to find them.”
It’s lunchtime and Bill White, a sheet metal worker, is sitting on a bench outside the CamH Centre for Addiction and Mental Health site on Queen Street, surrounded by a dozen other metal workers.
These are the guys who build the heating systems found in most modern buildings, and these days confidence is high around such trades.
“You can pick and choose [who you work for],” says Mr. White, a talkative man with a broad grin. He’s been contacted in recent weeks by three different companies looking to offer him a job.
At the same time he adds hastily, “I’m a pretty faithful guy,” having worked for his current employer for eight months. Indeed, once he worked for a company for 15 years.
There has been a lot of griping in the industry about the labour shortage, but according to Mr. White, they have only themselves to blame.
“The average guy is in his 50s and they’re only figuring out now that people are getting ready to retire,” says Mr. White.
The flow of young workers entering the trade got stopped cold in the last downturn in the late 1980s when high schools began cutting back on shop classes.
“They ripped all the shops out of the highs schools and put in dance studios!” declares Mr. White, who pauses a moment to give his colleagues time to agree. “That’s why they don’t have any young people. Dance studios! How do you make money out of that?”
Fernando Canonico, 38, is one of the youngest in the group of metal workers lounging on the grass beside Mr. White. Married with two kids, he lives in the bedroom community of Whitby about 45 minutes east of Toronto. His day starts early, at about 4:15 am, so he can get to work by 6:30 when his shift begins. If he’s lucky with the traffic, he can be back home by 6:00 pm.
The hours are demanding but Mr. Canonico is happy with his job. In a good year he makes at least $80,000, a lot more if he gets overtime since he gets paid at twice the normal hourly rate.
“I’ve never seen it as busy as it is now,” he says happily.
Mr. Canonico originally trained as a butcher but he didn’t like the work. So about 12 years ago, on the advice of his metal worker father-in-law he switched careers.
“This is a lot more fun,” he says.