Canada has a nationwide infrastructure deficit, with roads, bridges, schools, public transit, sewers, and more all suffering from decades of cost-cutting and underinvestment. We also have an aging workforce, particularly in the skilled trades, already beginning to retire en masse. Both of these problems can be solved by timely and substantial investment in this country’s public infrastructure.

Rick Smith, Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute, believes that, economically, the timing is ideal. “At a time when the economy is flagging in many parts of the country, and at a time when governments, particularly the federal government, have a low debt to GDP ratio, and a stellar credit rating, it is a clear time to invest.”

A recent Broadbent Institute study has estimated that one dollar invested in public infrastructure today will show a return on investment of nearly quadruple over the long term, with even the short term numbers suggesting a GDP boost of $1.43 per $1 spent. “Today, there are workers available and, with the business cycle down somewhat, bids are likely going to be more competitive,” says Bob Blakely, Canadian Operating Officer for Canada’s Building Trades Unions. “The interest rates are as low as they are ever going to be. In this environment, you get more bang for your construction buck.”

More affordable labour means more affordable training

Because the private business cycle is at a low ebb, there is a golden opportunity to wisely pursue nationwide projects that will not only improve quality of life for Canadians, but also provide apprenticeship options for the next generation of skilled tradespeople. Apprenticeship opportunities have been disproportionately located in western Canada for the past decade, and that is simply not sustainable. “A lot of New Brunswick pipefitters and welders, for example, work out west,” says John Telford, Director of Canadian Affairs at UA Canada. “But, if there’s no work at home, we can’t develop new apprentices in New Brunswick. To get apprenticeships rolling in all the provinces, we need to come up with infrastructure work in New Brunswick, in Nova Scotia, in Quebec, everywhere in the country.”

And we desperately need those apprentices. “We have to replace, over the next seven years, roughly 25 percent of the extant construction workforce,” says Blakely. “And we’re going to lose roughly 40 percent of superintendents and supervisors.” Unless we provide good training opportunities in every province, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to revitalize that workforce with young tradespeople. Due to the greater variety of work an apprentice is exposed to, public infrastructure projects offer the best training opportunities, compared to what they would see working in a refinery.

The virtuous circle

“There’s a virtuous circle,” says Smith, “where increased infrastructure spending results in more projects, which results in more apprenticeship opportunities, which results in more skilled tradespeople.” After a lengthy period of austerity, it is well past time to get this circle spinning again before it grinds to a complete halt.

The good news is that, for the first time in two decades, the prospect of real reinvestment in Canada’s public infrastructure is finally beginning to gain traction at all levels of government. As citizens, it is our duty to encourage that investment in order to modernize and maintain the infrastructure of this country for ourselves and for generations to come.