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Builders eye pay rates for trades

Construction Association of Bermuda president: Charles Dunstan (File photograph).

A skills shortage in the island’s building industry has been partly blamed on the appeal of jobs in computing and the internet.

Charles Dunstan, president of the Construction Association of Bermuda, said there remains “little success in convincing” young locals to enter the field despite a continuing need to fill posts. He argued this leads to a greater reliance on employees from overseas, which in turn can also result in Bermudians already in the business priced out of the job market.

In an effort to increase fairness, the organisation has started informal talks to set minimum pay rates for the industry’s biggest trades.

Mr Dunstan told The Royal Gazette: “As in many western jurisdictions, we face a shortage of qualified tradespeople in Bermuda. Construction is still a fairly labour-intensive business, and certain trades are more labour-intensive than others.

“Masonry is one such trade; 2017 statistics showed just under 400 masonry work permits. When you consider a total industry of approximately 2,000 workers, this is a significant number.

“And yet we have little success in convincing young Bermudians to pursue a career in masonry. As an educator said to me recently, ‘All the kids coming out of school want to be in IT’.”

He said “Certain trades require specific skills that are limited in availability locally.”

Mr Dunstan, who is the head of contract and supply firm Kaissa, explained: “All of this leads to resourcing from overseas to meet the demands of the market. Just because we don’t want our kids to be builders, doesn’t mean we don’t want things built.

“It comes from the parents. In a lot of ways we can go into schools and talk to the kids but in reality what we need to do is a better job of outreach to educators and parents. I think that’s where some of our focus is going to change.”

The body is trying to “regenerate” and “coax” people towards a career in construction and its president hopes funds currently used for large scholarship packages can be shared among more people and assist with vocational training, in partnership with the Department of Workforce Development.

He added: “It really is about visibility, it’s about making it a sexy career.”

Mr Dunstan continued: “Tradesmen from certain jurisdictions are often motivated to work for lower wages than a Bermudian tradesman is.

“There is evidence that this is exploited by a certain few contractors and employers, to the obvious disadvantage of local tradesmen.

“The Construction Association has been in discussions with the Labour Advisory Council over establishing industry minimum wage levels for each major trade.

“This will help level the playing field for local contractors, both in resourcing as well as bidding.”

He said payment in the industry is regulated only by the shape of market and continued: “The strength of the economy will dictate the demand for construction resourcing.

“In construction, there is an old saying, ‘you are only as good as your next job’.

“While this is typically used in reference to quality, it can just as easily be applied to a firm’s pipeline of work.

“When the economy is strong and there is high demand, smaller self-employed contractors will find it easier to build that pipeline.

“As the economy weakens, and work dries up, the difficulties of putting down your tools to concentrate on finding new work are magnified.

“This same scenario will also tend to have a dramatic effect on wages. In good times, a contractor may struggle to scale his crew up to meet demand. This can result in more short-term, higher-wage hiring.

“As work dries up, these more costly resources will be the first to find themselves out of work.”

The most recent Quarterly Bulletin of Statistics showed the estimated value of construction work put in place during 2017 was $184.6 million, nearly double the previous 12-month period when the figure was just $94.2 million.

Building hotels and the new airport was reflected in an employment income total for the industry of $124.3 million, a year-on-year increase of $9 million.

Mr Dunstan said a basic skilled labourer in Bermuda typically earns between $18 and $23 per hour.

Entry-level apprentices might start on an hourly rate of around $12, he said, but even they will rise to around $18 or more fairly quickly, as long as they meet the obligations of their apprenticeship.

Mr Dunstan continued: “Once they pass their courses, and have logged the requisite experience, they will be making anywhere from $25 to $35 an hour, depending on their trade.”

He said based on these figures, the living wage proposal of a mooted $18.23 an hour, put forward by a Parliamentary Joint Select Committee, would be unlikely to have a “significant direct effect” on the construction industry.

A government spokeswoman said the Labour Relations section was unable to comment.