Canadian consulting engineers are focusing on their role as a business sector in the national economy, in order to develop new strategies to overcome barriers to international competition and growth.
“There are a lot of things that make Canada a tough place for business to succeed,” said Warren Everson, senior vice-president of policy with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
“The markets tend to be quite thin and the distances are long. We have adverse weather conditions, such as landslides. So we tend to focus on these things, which we chose as policy.”
Everson made this statement to a group of consulting engineers on the morning of June 20, during their annual conference at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta.
More than 30 delegates, spouses and sponsors were unable attend Summit 2013, due to extreme weather.
Most of these delegates from across Canada were scheduled to travel about 100 kilometres from Calgary airport along Highway 1 through the town of Canmore to Lake Louise.
However, in the early hours of June 20, the banks of Cougar Creek, which runs through Canmore, were undermined and destabilized by heavy rains.
The town declared a state of local emergency when the creek overflowed and flooded the Trans-Canada Highway, which was closed east and westbound.
There were other road closures in the area too.
Despite these challenges, Everson kicked off Summit 2013 by introducing delegates to the main theme: Leading the way, shaping our future.
“At the chamber, we said let’s focus on competitiveness and let’s get people, if not alarmed, at least aware about these issues” he said.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce recently unveiled its Top 10 Barriers to Competitiveness for 2013.
Everson focused on four of these barriers, which he thought were the most relevant to the consulting engineering sector.
These are: inadequate public infrastructure planning; skills shortages; world energy markets; and uncompetitive travel and tourism strategies.
According to Everson, Canada was very robust in its public sector infrastructure investment in the 1950s and 1960s, with the federal government spending about three per cent of the national gross domestic product (GDP) on infrastructure.
However, in the 1980s and 1990s, pressure on the fiscal situation in Canada and other distractions took this money away.
“So, Canada spent very little on public infrastructure until this last decade,” said Everson.
“Under successive stimulus programs, governments began putting money back in. The product of that is a lot of our public infrastructure is quite aged and has not been receiving the periodic maintenance it should have had done.”
He said an ongoing commitment to infrastructure requires cooperation between various levels of government and a little bit of maturity among finance ministers.
Given this fact, Emerson said engineers are front and centre in the fight to get more money for infrastructure and to make good use of that money.
Next, Emerson said the Canadian labour market is moving through a demographic shift which will see 95,000 professional engineers retire by 2020, but Canada is not planning to replace them.
Only 12,000 engineers graduated in Canada last year.
In addition, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce said there is a growing mismatch between the skills needed and those available.
The skills shortfall will be exacerbated by almost 550,000 unskilled workers who will not qualify for skilled vacancies that will exist in 2016.
By 2021, this number could double to more than one million.
Another major barrier to competitiveness is Canada’s dependency on exporting virtually all of its petroleum energy resources to a single market in the U.S. where demand is falling sharply.
Everson argued that Canada’s future economic prosperity depends on the construction of reliable infrastructure to export energy resources to Asian markets.
Finally, he said the deterioration of the tourism industry over the last decade is a barrier to competitiveness and economic growth.
He said tourism is not seen as a cohesive industry, but if you count it all up it’s the third largest industry in the country and contributes about $85 billion to $88 billion to GDP every year.
Since 2000, Canada has moved from about five per cent of all the international travel in the world to three per cent.
According to Everson, the Government of Canada should pay close attention to this issue and develop a strategy to support the industry.