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Severe skill shortages are a priority for new president

Shannon Moneo

The new president of the Saskatchewan Construction Association (SCA) is barely three months into his job, but Mark Cooper is already keenly aware of the biggest challenge facing the 1,300-member organization.

“Without a doubt, it’s finding the people to do the work. There’s a shortage of skilled labour, true for small or large companies,” Cooper said.

Recently, two major potash mine expansions in the province, worth $1 billion, were put on hold because not enough suitable employees were available to see the project through to completion, he said.

Compounding the challenge are concerns that the rebuilding of flood-ravaged southern Alberta will mean even more across-the-board labour shortages over the next couple of years, as workers flock to Alberta.

“There’s always fluctuations, but we expect some impact,” he said.

“We may have to pay more to keep people in Saskatchewan.”

To address labour shortages, Cooper wants a consistent approach in the Western Canadian provinces.

One shortfall has been that the three provinces don’t have a formal way to connect and share ideas, he said.

Meanwhile, Saskatchewan has been importing workers from around the world, with Ireland a key source for well-trained tradespeople who speak English.

But, more has to be done “to get a better sense of the industry,” Cooper said.

“Being able to predict demographics is tough.”

He noted that trade schools attempt to match industry’s needs.

However, most often such quotas work for larger companies, but not for smaller companies, who may need only one or two positions.

A challenge, he said, is to figure out how to get qualified workers into positions as quickly as possible, taking note of pre-job and on-the-job training.

Clearly, the 35-year-old, London, Ontario-born Cooper has his work cut out for him.

One major project, put on hold when former SCA president Michael Fougere began his successful campaign last year to be Regina’s new mayor, is the promotion of Saskatchewan’s construction industry, said SCA board chair Sam Shaw.

Already one year behind, Shaw said the SCA is eager to resume a program that markets Saskatchewan’s construction industry as a destination for not only trades, but managers and support staff.

Shaw, a commercial contractor in Moose Jaw, said Cooper was chosen from 35 applicants, narrowed to 10, then three, because of Cooper’s training, experience dealing with people and teamwork ethic.

“Our industry is all about the people and Mr. Cooper will take our association to the next level in giving our members the service they want,” Shaw said.

Cooper spent his early years in Ontario and Quebec, moving to Saskatchewan in 1995.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Regina and soon after began working in Edmonton at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs for four years.

He was also certified as a mediator while in Alberta.

Cooper returned to Saskatchewan in 2005 to work as a sector relations manager with Saskatchewan Municipal Affairs.

In 2009, he completed a master’s certificate in project management from the University of Saskatchewan, the same year he began working for the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association, where he was director of policy and communication services.

One more feather in his education cap is Cooper’s master’s of business administration, granted in June 2012 from Victoria’s Royal Roads University.

“He’s got a lot of education,” Shaw noted.

To get a good handle on where the SCA should direct its energy, a survey to determine members’ priorities has just been completed, Cooper said.

The results will drive a strategic plan that will cover the next three to five years.

Roughly 25 per cent of the members (325), representing small to large construction companies, involved in a variety of work, responded to the survey.

The next steps are interviews and focus groups.

When asked what his three priorities are, Cooper said his first goal is to implement plans for workforce development, including initiatives to tackle recruitment, business development and life-long learning.

“The new generation of workers want continuing education and support to start their own business,” he said.

His second mission will be advocacy.

Cooper will work closely with the provincial government to present the SCA’s views and try to ensure provincial regulations will allow the industry to thrive.

Cooper is expected to be the point man with the provincial government, letting the politicians know the SCA’s concerns, while not making the government look bad, Shaw said.

And because the SCA represents both union and non-union members, Cooper has to “play neutral.”

“It’s about fair and equitable play between employers and employees,” Shaw said.

Cooper’s third goal is to recruit new members and ensure existing members feel engaged.

Since his start in April, he’s been in and out of the Regina office, where he’s supported by two full-time staff and three contracted workers.

“I’m new to the industry. Most of my time has been spent getting to know the members and the partners,” he said.

When not travelling for business, Cooper likes to travel for pleasure. He is single and the owner of D’Artagnan, a beagle.

He’s also president of the Friends of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and he volunteers with the Regina Food Bank.