Construction and development in the Kootenays

Interview with Roger Smith, president of Olson Construction in Golden

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The president of Olson Construction, Roger Smith, a general contractor located in Golden, said that although the industry faces certain challenges, there is growth and opportunity in the Kootenays and Columbia Valley. Over the next few years, the challenge of keeping skilled workers in the region will continue, but Smith has hope that the beauty of the Kootenays will continue to attract skilled trades.

Olson Construction has two main divisions, commercial construction and residential construction. The commercial side has experienced the most growth over the last few years and Smith expects that to continue. On the residential side, Olson takes on one to two new homes per year but focuses a lot on renovations. The company works in Golden, west towards Revelstoke, and in Lake Louise, Field, and other parts of the Kootenays.

In 2013 the company won two commercial construction awards: an award of excellence and a judges' choice award from the Southern Interior Construction Association. Both awards were given for the Golden Civic Centre renovation.

Kootenay Business sat down with this construction industry thought leader to find out what the industry looks like today as well as its challenges and opportunities in the Kootenay region.

What are some of the emerging trends that you see will happen in the next one to three years?

You read a lot on the provincial and national stage about what's happening in our economy. I read it, but I'm more concerned with what  see regionally because that's where we do business. I'm actually pretty excited about what's going in the Cranbrook and Kimberley area. It seems like every time I go there now, the town is taking leaps ahead. I've been in the valley for 20 years here and Cranbrook used to have a reputation of being very industrial, with not much going on. Now that has all changed. There seems to be a new vibrancy, with lots of new stores. It's really coming into its own. I think that's fantastic. The regional economy will go the way Cranbrook goes, because it is our closest and largest centre. It's good to see new homes and new commercial construction going on there. That just means there's potential, and the spin-offs go all the way up the valley, all the way through to Golden, and that's a good thing.

The skilled trades shortage is an issue now we are firmly facing in the valley, especially with Alberta being so close. It's hard to convince the younger guys in the skilled trades to stay in Golden and other communities when the oil patch is so close and they can go there and make a substantially higher wage. This is a pressure we are facing right now and cannot be ignored any more. It is going to be the biggest obstacle in the construction sector here. The work will be here, but we need the manpower to get projects done on schedule and on budget.

Is your industry affected by smartphones and social media? If so, how?

Smartphones and their technology make portability and mobility much easier when we are working and communicating between the office and construction sites. I still consider social media to be an emerging trend in construction. I just don't see it as important to our industry as other business sectors, at this point anyway.

In what ways has your industry grown over the last few years?

In Golden, the amount of infrastructure on the Trans Canada Highway east of Golden has been phenomenal and has been a huge economic driver. The employment opportunities have been great for local people. There aren't as many municipal projects up our way, but I see them in other areas such as Cranbrook. In almost every town, including Invermere and Cranbrook, you see them getting one to two substantial projects every few years. Take Cranbrook, for example. It is getting a new Sport Chek and has just completed the new Ford dealership. Invermere is also getting a No Frills grocery store. For the valley, these are large projects and are very encouraging to see. It builds momentum and with that kind of growth comes residential construction, because it brings more opportunities to our towns up and down the valley.

Do you anticipate there will be an increase in careers in the area over the next decade?

That's a tough one. I don't understand why more people don't want to come to live and work in the communities in the valley, but in the trades sector, in the construction industry, having Alberta so close and so much work and construction going on there is a huge draw for some of the workers that live in the East Kootenay. Keeping those guys here and having well-paying jobs is the biggest challenge I see over the next few years.

If someone is interested in entering the industry, what sort of experience and education do you think would be relevant?

Construction is definitely not the same game it used to be years ago. Building science is getting more and more advanced all the time and with new building codes, you can't just throw homes together anymore. Building homes on the residential side is a lot more involved than a lot of people think. For a project to go smoothly takes a lot of work and a lot of attention to detail. I find that it takes an interesting skill set to be able to manage all the jobs on a project . A job in this industry is rewarding, but definitely not as easy as showing up and pounding nails.

A formal education is encouraged. Certainly on the commercial side, people that move through the ranks are self-starters and like to challenge themselves. I try to keep a great team of workers around me, as do other companies here in the valley. You can accomplish more with a few skilled workers than many unskilled workers. I tend to keep my eye out for ticketed carpenters, people that have shown commitment to the trade, and people that have secondary education in project management I really go after.

What is one of the biggest challenges your industry faces in the next three years?

The biggest challenge is definitely keeping people here. If you would have asked me a couple years ago when I started hearing about it on the news at a national level, it wasn't such a issue. But in the last few years in Golden we've lost an alarming number of guys in all the trades because they are going to Alberta. This area is such a beautiful place to live, it's a shame there is not more economic opportunity.

What is the biggest opportunity in your industry or something you are particularly excited about?

Certainly in Golden, there is a lot of infrastructure. There are buildings like the Civic Centre, which we renovated, that are long overdue. So certainly there are those construction opportunities being a local builder. I'm not saying we would get them in a competitive tender process, but I suspect that over the next few years here there will be many opportunities for all of us here. Cranbrook seems to be putting up more and more commercial buildings, which is a great opportunity. There are tremendous opportunities in the entire region. It's just going to take some entrepreneurial people, established local businesses and help from the local government to make sure we keep our construction workers here.

Karen Kornelsen

Karen Kornelsen, a writer for Kootenay Business Magazine, has a degree in jounalism. She enjoys finding and reporting the news from the business community. View all of Karen Kornelsen’s articles

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