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SHORTon manpower

Report finds Canada's electricity and renewable-energy industry will soon be desperate for skilled workers

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A severe labour shortage is looming within Canada's electricity and renewable-energy industry, with at least 45,000 new workers needed over the next five years, a new study has found.

The national Electricity Sector Council (ESC) said in a new report released Tuesday an unprecedented number of new skilled workers, supervisors and managers will be needed to replace a wave of new retirees and to work on a raft of "next generation" infrastructure projects that will be undertaken over the next five years. "That (45,000) is almost half of the starting workforce (in Canada)," the council said, "and more than twice the number recruited in the last five years."

Closer to home, the ESC said census data indicates there were 8,755 people working in the industry in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 2006, and that number will need to balloon to 12,803 by 2016.

The types of skilled workers that will be in the biggest demand include information systems analysts and consultants; mechanical, electrical and electronics engineers; electrical power line and cable workers; power systems and power station operators; and construction millwrights and industrial mechanics.

A spokesman for Manitoba Hydro said the public utility estimates it will need between 750 and 900 new workers over the next five years to replace existing employees who will be retiring.

Glenn Schneider said he didn't have an estimate for how many more workers Hydro will need to hire to work on the new generating-station and hydro-line projects. But he noted the company contracts out a lot of construction work to outside contractors, so the number of new workers it needs to hire for its own staff may not be that great.

He said Hydro has its own in-house training programs for skilled tradespeople. It recruits about 125 new apprentices each year and currently has about 600 in various stages of training.

"We've been able to keep pace so far, so I think we'll be OK. But we will continue to look at all opportunities (for recruiting new workers)."

However, the business manager for the union that represents about half of Hydro's more 6,000 workers -- Local 2034 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers -- said finding enough skilled workers is only half the challenge Hydro faces. The other half is retaining the ones it already has.

Mike Velie said electricity industry tradespeople here are the lowest-paid in Western Canada, with wages on average about 12 to 15 per cent lower than in Saskatchewan and at least 20 per cent lower than in Alberta. He estimates Manitoba Hydro has lost at least 200 journeymen tradespeople over the last decade to those provinces and most of them were linesmen.

ESC executive director Michelle Branigan said employers, educators, governments and unions will all need to work together to overcome the pending labour crunch.

And the answer isn't in trying to lure skilled tradespeople away from other industries, Branigan added.

"That's not going to be doable anymore because the people are not there. Other industries are facing the same issues."

She said they not only need to convince more students to consider careers in the electrical industry, but also to explore underemployed labour markets such as immigrants, women and aboriginals.

murray.mcneill@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2012 B4

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