Premier Legault, tear down these construction-industry walls

Question: How many workers does it take to change a door in a Quebec school? Answer: As many as seven, according to the province’s labour minister, Jean Boulet. Why? Because the carpenter who works on what’s inside the wall has to leave installation of the doorframe to the interior systems installer, who must let the plasterer do the plastering, and so on. And people wonder why Canada has a productivity problem!

To address this sorry state of affairs, the minister has tabled a bill to modernize the Quebec construction industry and, among other things, let construction workers do more work across job classifications. Although the new legislation would reduce the number of workers needed to change the door, it would do so only if everything can be done in a single day. If it takes longer than that, the old featherbedding rules apply.

The bill is therefore a step in the right direction, but only a tiny step. With all the major housing projects currently needed at this point, Quebec should really be taking a giant leap, not just a tentative first step. Instead of maintaining the same number of regulated trades and opening the door to a trickle of versatility, the government should reduce this number drastically, allowing all construction workers more flexibility.

Quebec’s regulatory framework governing construction trades is particularly rigid, establishing 25 trades, each with its own compulsory certification. The partitions between the different trades prevent construction workers from carrying out related tasks, even those that require little training.

For example, if you want to re-do your kitchen by the book, with a new ceramic backsplash and linoleum flooring, you’ll need the services of two distinct tradespeople — even if several of the skills involved are transferrable from one project to the other.

But the new bill only allows construction workers to carry out related tasks that are part of a single sequence of work and are completed in a single day. A real productivity boost for the industry would require tearing down more of the partitions between trades.

Quebec’s construction industry is the country’s most siloed. Ontario and British Columbia have only seven certified trades each. In Ontario, many jobs can be carried out by a single worker, which has obvious productivity benefits.

As if the multiplication of trades weren’t bad enough, in Quebec several hundred hours of courses are required in order to practice each of the 25 construction trades. The case of house painters demonstrates the absurdity of this approach. The provincial government requires 900 hours of training. Elsewhere in the country, there are no such prerequisites.

In those provinces, when painting work is hard to come by, painters can reinvent themselves as plasterers or drywall installers. And when there are too many paint jobs for the number of painters around, those who practice related trades can more easily lend a hand.

For workers, certification can be a straitjacket, making it harder to take up a trade and confining them to it once they’re in. Painters are not the only ones in this situation, however. Of the 25 construction trades requiring certification in Quebec, 13 require certification in no other province. Removing compulsory certification for these 13 trades should be the starting point for deregulation. This would allow the sector to equip itself to address productivity issues as it struggles with what it says is a shortage of 7,760 workers. But how much of that shortage is artificially created, by keeping workers from doing work they’re perfectly capable of doing?

More flexible rules would allow the existing number of workers to do more than they’re doing now. That’s the essence of productivity. And Canada has a productivity problem right now.

Instead of trying to lock our construction workers into a few well-defined boxes, let’s trust in their skills. They can do a lot more than bureaucrats think they can.

Gabriel Giguère is a Public Policy Analyst at the MEI and the author of “Decompartmentalizing Construction Trades: How Much Is Enough?” The views reflected in this opinion piece are his own.

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