Bridging the skills gap
By Chris GowerConstruction Labour
The construction industry can’t just wait for the skilled labour shortage to resolve itself. The industry and government must act now.
Despite supply chain issues and rising costs of materials, construction demand is extremely high right now, and that demand is rising at a time when the shrinking pool of experienced workers is not keeping pace. We are in a labour crisis.
The number of young people coming into construction careers combined with employee attrition means that the thousands of employees who do enter the construction industry each year are not enough to replace the number of baby boomers retiring. And those retirement figures are expected to increase even more in the next decade.
If not addressed, this labour shortage could cause project delays, an increased risk of safety incidents due to the need to use inexperienced employees, and pressure on the already-thin margins and tight timelines that we operate on.
Without a sufficient supply of labour through the post-pandemic boom in infrastructure spending and new builds, builders will struggle to meet client demand. The construction industry simply cannot afford to wait for the shortage to resolve itself. We must proactively build the pipeline that leads to more people in careers in our industry.
At PCL Construction, we’ve been building our labour pipeline for a long time, and we encourage all companies in the construction sector to step up with ideas and programs that attract the people our industry needs — the skilled workers of the future.
We know that to effectively build the pipeline from high school to a career in construction, we need to let students know that our industry offers rewarding careers. We start our pipeline as early as we can, making presentations to students long before they graduate, as well as right up to Grade 12.
We have a Careers in Construction presentation that teaches children about apprenticeships, and we engage them via our virtual design and construction department. What student isn’t in awe after a virtual tour of one of our job sites? Many don’t know how digital our work has become, until we show them.
We also support many post-secondary institutions. Our people sit on advisory boards for numerous college programs and professional associations, and we sponsor scholarships and awards, too. This further strengthens the skilled-labour pipeline in our communities.
Since 2017, PCL has donated over $1 million to post-secondary institutions across Canada and the United States. This isn’t a cost. We view it as a great investment in our future, and the results of these outreach activities speak for themselves.
Each year, PCL gives more than 500 interns from 94 colleges and universities real-world experience in the construction industry. This year, 107 former students joined PCL full time, and we filled nearly 80 per cent of entry-level engineering positions with former students. With the right effort, positive results are possible.
Some governments are stepping up their game as well. For example, in Ontario the province is providing free training and paid apprenticeships to become electricians. But we need to work with government to ensure that we take them up on these programs and hire as many apprentices as is permitted to fill up every spot in these programs.
Incentives can also prevent attrition of young workers to other industries. The government of Nova Scotia, for example, eliminated the provincial portion of personal income tax on the first $50,000 of annual income for construction trade workers under 30. Initiatives like these provide stability and compensation, which encourages people to continue working in the trades. Imagine the impact of a nationwide tax exemption for all skilled labour, like the one implemented in Nova Scotia.
At PCL, our internal training regimen is also crucial to creating and retaining our own workforce. Investing in our workers through education, experience and exposure builds valuable skills and well-rounded employees. Plus, mentorship programs and learning tools are key catalysts for developing strong leaders.
Our in-house program has offered more than 2,000 custom-designed courses ranging from basic to expert learning. We also have a system in place to identify high-potential employees in the field, since accelerating field-leader development is vital to our company’s continued success.
Looking beyond our walls, immigration has helped us during previous worker shortages, but it works best with government support. We need the Canadian government to make good on its pledged Trusted Employer system to streamline the application process for companies hiring temporary foreign workers to fill positions that can’t be filled by Canadians.
Reducing red tape and allowing our industry to accelerate the hiring of skilled workers foreign for specific shortages will have positive implications for the building sector, as well as for the entire economy.
To make tangible improvements — to make a critical difference — we need construction industry stakeholders to do more. We need to do more. So, ask yourself what more your company can be doing.
The good news is that, with a few ideas and a plan, we can create sustainable solutions for the labour challenges we face today as we prepare for our industry’s future.
Chris Gower is the COO, Buildings at PCL Construction.