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Major projects in Atlantic Canada face labour shortage

A three-person panel was at the Newfoundland and Labrador Oil and Gas Industries Association (NOIA) conference to speak on the challenges around major projects in Atlantic Canada.

From their presentations, one challenge has risen to the forefront: the availability of human resources.

At the St. John’s Convention Centre Tuesday afternoon, Jim Irving, president of J.D. Irving Ltd., John Pollesel, chief operating officer of Vale Canada, and Kari Plaster, vice-president of human resources with the Iron Ore Co. of Canada (IOC) all talked about their need for good workers.

Irving has just landed a $25-billion shipbuilding contract with the Canadian government.

Pollesel said Vale has “30-33 major projects” in the pipeline looking forward, totalling more than $100 billion.

IOC has completed one major expansion in Labrador City, only to launch directly into another. The Atlantic Provinces Economic Council has estimated the value for work under consideration at the site through 2013 at $828 million.

It is not oil and gas work, but the projects have at least one requirement in common with those in the oil industry: thousands of workers.


“Nobody can remember, I don’t think, a time when we could say labour is tight, or has gotten tight. But we are clearly here now,” Irving told the NOIA membership. He anticipated thousands of new hires for his organization from 2012-15.

Irving is already investing millions in training. In addition, the organization takes in about 650 students a year to work, some of whom later find permanent positions (63 Memorial University of Newfoundland graduates are counted among the ranks).

With arms in forestry, specialty printing, industrial fabrication and, of course, shipbuilding, the organization works to stay on top of its own labour forecast.

“We’ve been working hard for a number of years on our inventory of folks — what’s the skill? What’s the demographics? What do we need? Where are we going?” the president said.

Even so, getting information on the regional worker pool and what will be available in five years is a different story. It’s a problem representatives from Irving have taken to the federal government, he said, suggesting an independent study or database to track worker availability.


While the need for shipbuilding workers has yet to really kick in, Vale’s Long Harbour construction project is peaking at about 4,500 on site this summer.

Pollesel made it clear the company has hit a wall when it comes to supplying that project with labour from the local, regional and even, in some cases, national pool.

“Currently that project is progressing relatively well,” he said, noting it is “roughly about 66 per cent complete.” About 78 per cent of the man hours have been completed by hires made in Newfoundland and Labrador.

That said, “human resource shortages are certainly what are plaguing us right now. In our Long Harbour project we are experiencing a lot of difficulty in trying to attract the trades,” he said.

“In (Irving’s) presentation he mentioned that one of the things was to bring people home. Well, our experience so far is that we’re not finding a lot of people who want to, in fact, come home.”

The shortage is not only in terms of individual employees.

“Contractor and supplier base is shrinking,” he said. “There’s a lot of projects out there. We see a lot of consolidation in this industry. Competitive bidding is becoming less effective.”

Pollesel said there has been “quite a significant decline” in productivity day to day on Vale projects.

“The demographics, of course, haven’t helped. I can tell you that in our industry we’ve lost many experienced people and so now it’s very difficult and it’s a measure we need to take in terms of working with the colleges, working with the universities, to develop the programs to train our people, so that we will have the resources to move forward in our operations.”


“So many people today have talked about the challenge for resources. I’m not going to bore you with all of that. I’m just going to tell you that it’s a huge challenge for us,” said Plaster.

The company hired about 600 people last year alone in Labrador City.

“This year, we’ll hire at least that many again.”

On labour shortages, “we’re taking a slightly different approach to that same problem,” she said.

“What we’re trying to do is basically add new labour work hours or improve our existing utilization and productivity.”

The company is testing fly in, fly out; prioritizing vacancies; tightening up break times; and seeking small efficiencies like making the transitions of trucks and shovels in and out of shifts flow more smoothly.

“We’re just trying to focus on those things that we know we have control over when sometimes you don’t have control over the number of resources coming into your business.”

Organizations: NOIA, IOC, Newfoundland and Labrador Oil and Gas Industries Association Convention Centre J.D. Irving Ltd. Vale Canada Iron Ore Co. of Canada Atlantic Provinces Economic Council Memorial University of Newfoundland

Geographic location: Atlantic Canada, Labrador, Long Harbour

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Recent comments

  • Rob
    June 20, 2012 - 14:28

    I have been trying to get in Long Hr for a year now, i cant even get an interview. I have tried to get in the union, which is locked, so no luck there either. The only good news to come out of NL lately is the expansion to the St. Johns airport. Long live Alberta... Just Sayin

    • john Cochrane
      June 20, 2012 - 19:22

      Want a job in Long Harbour. Learn how to speak french.

  • Rob
    June 20, 2012 - 14:25

    I have been trying to get in Long Hr for a year now, i cant even get an interview. I have tried to get in the union, which is locked, so no luck there either. The only good news to come out of NL lately is the expansion to the St. Johns airport. Long live Alberta... Just Sayin

  • Carol Ann
    June 20, 2012 - 13:55

    There are alot of students trying to get into Engineering and other professions here in Newfoundland and the Universidy turns them down year after year and they cannot get in the faculity they would perfer, since they do not have enought seats but yet they say there is not enough educated people here to do the jobs....go figure.....

  • Edmund
    June 20, 2012 - 10:47

    Tell them to start considering well educated workers from other industries, business professionals who are easily trained, generally displaced because of downsizing, mature workers who still want to be working etc. etc and invest in some training (these professionals learn very quickly) and are dependable local Newfoundlanders & Labradorians. I know from personal experience and others like me that these oil & gas, Mining and other large scale companies are not prepared to hire us this way. They want the experienced workers, who are not available, to start immediately but complain constantly about shortages and the need to bring in immigrants who don't speak english and do not adjust to our culture. Cut the crap and start considering the local professionals who will welcome the opportunity to work, be quickly trained, provide excellent working habits and committ to long term obligations. A least try it to see what happens.

    June 20, 2012 - 08:17

    My son recently went to an interview for a marine position with the oil industry and was told that there was only 1 other qualified candidate besides him in the province, but because he did not have the BST; which he was willing to get; the company informed him that they would have to hire from Poland. wouldn't it make more sense for the companies to pay for the one course these 2 cnadidates required instead of having to go through the process of visa's for the immigrants they were willing to hire??

  • Atlantic Canadian
    June 20, 2012 - 07:59

    Jobs in Atlantic Canada? I went on Vale's site and the majority are for Sudbury...

  • Guy Incognito
    June 20, 2012 - 07:35

    I think that these companies will find a wealth of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who are willing to come home, provided that the wages offered are on par with those in other parts of Canada. Until there is some parity, they will continue to have HR issues.

  • Anne
    June 20, 2012 - 06:36

    Sounds like all of the big company heads are gearing up to justify the hiring of immigrants. I know a lot of skilled tradespeople that still can't even get an interview for any job at Long Harbour. Is it because they want to pay below the going wage? They certainly can hire all the immigrants they want at minimum wage. Minimum wage is just about proverty level. With the price of houses in NL, how in the world can one afford to buy a house living on minimum wage?

  • Christopher Chafe
    June 20, 2012 - 06:35

    “In (Irving’s) presentation he mentioned that one of the things was to bring people home. Well, our experience so far is that we’re not finding a lot of people who want to, in fact, come home.” ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Pay the money and they will come!