A significant contributor to the Canadian economy, construction contributes close to 7% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employs one in 14 working Canadians. Because of this, addressing the skilled labour shortage in the Canadian construction industry should be both a governmental and a corporate priority.
Because the shortage of skilled labour will only become more acute over the next several years—it’s projected that nearly 20% of the currently active workforce will reach retirement age by the middle of the decade and replacing these workers won’t be easy—companies must give careful thought now to how they recruit and retain workers.
The generation immediately following the baby boomers (often referred to as the baby busters or Generation X) numbered less than two-thirds its seniors in the last Census of Population. Making matters worse, nearly 30% fewer young Canadians are choosing construction careers. Not surprisingly, this has been a consistent challenge for the construction industry and will continue to be one in the future. However, what must change are the approaches and solutions implemented to ensure contractors are prepared to minimize the effects of the current (and looming) skilled labour shortage.
For more than 30 years, the construction industry has been trying to attract people from nontraditional sources (e.g., aboriginals and women). Such recruiting strategies continue to be the first response to the skilled labour challenge, yet the results of these efforts produce minimal success at best.
For example, women represented 12% of people employed in the construction industry last year, which is only two points more than the 10% they represented in 1987. This is not to say that efforts to attract women and other minority groups to pursue careers in construction should cease. The sheer number of women in the construction labour force has more than doubled during that same time frame (1987-2017). Rather attracting more and new people is not the only answer—or even a wholly sufficient answer.
With the advent of new technologies, the hiring and retention approaches have expanded to include accelerating and augmenting the skill sets of new entrants, while also eliminating human dependency where possible and appropriate. Not only will these solutions reduce the severity of the skilled labour shortage, but they can also increase interest in construction as a career, reduce the risks of injury and improve profitability.
The incorporation of prefabricated assemblies and components is one of the most long-standing and successful responses to the skilled labour challenge. In fact, the time it takes to reach the same level of skill in a controlled manufacturing environment (versus working out in the field) has shrunk to just a few weeks (versus years) for some trades.
The adoption of more software-based project collaboration and management—plus the use of technologies such as immersive virtual reality for training—aligns with the expectations and experiences of the youngest generation. These innovations, which present an entirely new take on the industry, can lure youngsters to construction careers.
Finally, the use of drone and robotic technology will begin to rapidly replace both the more mundane skilled labor requirements and the more challenging ones. Such innovations include robots that tie off rebar to laying brick and other tasks. Put simply, the successful contractor of tomorrow will be incorporating such approaches and solutions in response to the skilled labour shortage—a challenge that won’t wane anytime soon.
While nontraditional means of addressing the skilled labour shortage are both successful and necessary, whether to employ these approaches and solutions is a decision that should be made carefully, particularly as it relates to implementation.
A good starting point is to establish a vision for the organization regarding technology as a means for augmenting its skilled labour requirements. Once this vision is established, foster a culture of innovation throughout the organization to continually assess what should (or should not) be prioritized for these nontraditional solutions.
In many cases, FMI’s research shows time spent just looking for project data and information can significantly distract workers from higher-value activities. This may represent the simplest and first fix to consider. Regardless of the solution(s), foster a culture of innovation that encourages management to evaluate and compare the solutions in relation to existing work processes and procedures (and incorporate feedback from potential users).
Understanding the applicability and integrability of a potential solution is critical to that solution’s ultimate success. Do not be afraid to incorporate nontraditional approaches and solutions to the skilled labour shortage; it’s completely necessary. However, make sure your organization is prepared to fully vet these solutions and determine whether they fit with the company’s culture and mission.