Fresh Takes

A little good news in Quebec’s construction industry

The Commission de la construction du Québec (CCQ) today announced some “historic” new measures. Eight changes will allow new workers to obtain their competency certificates (or “competency cards” as they are also known in the industry) more rapidly.

For example, entrepreneurs will be able to exempt two of their children, instead of just one, from the requirement to hold a competency certificate to work on their sites. Students who are following training will be able to intern on a worksite (currently prohibited) and therefore obtain a temporary apprentice competency certificate, in the context of an alternating work-study program. And an experienced worker (a journeyperson) will be able to supervise two apprentices on a worksite rather than just one.

This is all well and good. However, the proposed measures change none of the principles set out in Act R-20 concerning qualifications.

This law, and in particular the compartmentalization of trades that it lays out, increases costs for many projects in the provinces, as the MEI showed back in 2010. Absent this obstacle, Quebec construction workers could increase their productivity, which would allow the government and Quebec taxpayers to save on construction costs, notably for infrastructure projects.

In Quebec, 31 trades and specialized occupations exist side by side in the construction industry. To carry out work, an employer can only hire workers who have the appropriate competency certificates for each of the trades. And of course, each trade has a union that jealously guards its area of competence.

For example, an interior systems installer can install drywall on a two by four, but not on metal—that’s a job for another trade. A tilesetter cannot install linoleum, which is a job for a resilient-flooring layer.

This rigid framework hampers the versatility of workers. As a result, a construction project—be it a hospital, a school, or a factory—requires more workers and subcontractors. This multiplies steps and wastes a lot of time. Who pays for this? In the case of a school or hospital, it’s the government, which gets its money from you and me.

Economist Pierre Fortin estimated in 2002 that Act R-20 as a whole increases total construction costs by 10.5%. The regulation has, according to him, a negative impact on Quebec’s GDP of 1.5% every year. That’s a loss of $3.4 billion and 52,000 jobs.

In sum, the regulatory easing announced today is welcome, but there’s still a lot to do. To save on major projects, the government will one day have to make R-20 less restrictive in order to allow our workers to become more versatile and productive.

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