Building the Canadian construction workforce
By NANCY NOVAKConstruction Labour Skills Development Women in Construction
Expansion of view can help the industry meet its future growth needs.
Since the end of 2020, when the construction industry began recovering from pandemic-related shutdowns, Canada’s construction sector has entered a period of rapid growth. Some analysts, including the firm Research and Markets, suggest this period will run at a compound annual growth rate of five per cent through at least 2026. A significant obstacle to meeting that demand, however, is that the Canadian construction industry is in the midst of a growing workforce shortage as fewer workers are choosing careers in the construction industry.
This workforce shortage goes deeper than the short-term labour market issues that can be expected as an economy cycles between supply and demand peaks and troughs. A number of long-term trends have collided to create a workforce crisis that the industry cannot ignore.
A pressing concern, and one of the biggest causes of the crisis, is the aging of the construction industry’s current workforce. The rate of retirement is leading to the loss of experienced workers as they reach retirement age. Another is the overall aging of Canada’s population. A smaller number of workers are entering the general workforce each year. Another factor is a long-term demographic change stretching back more than a decade that has resulted in more students pursuing college degrees and not considering construction as a career.
That last demographic trend is particularly important because it reflects a perception problem. Modern construction no longer resembles the image that so many people have from the past, but it is a shadow that is hard to cast off. Today’s reality, however, is that construction is a technology-driven industry that relies on highly educated personnel and very often high-tech tools. Unfortunately, this perception issue, along with these other workforce trends, means that the construction industry is not attracting the talent it needs.
For the industry to solve this workforce challenge, we need to have a better strategy for attracting workers, especially those who might not otherwise think about careers in construction. That means making construction careers more attractive to a more diverse set of potential workers, including women and minorities.
TAPPING INTO DIVERSITY
In Canada, women are an enormous potential workforce for the construction industry. Females represent roughly 50 per cent of the population yet hold fewer than 15 per cent of the jobs in Canada’s construction industry, and likely less than three per cent of the skilled trades on a site. The limited number of women with careers in the industry often fill office roles, but that does not reflect the much larger role that they could play.
Another highly under-represented demographic in construction is the Indigenous Peoples in Canada. This group represents only one in 10 jobs in the industry today but represent a massive untapped talent pool to draw upon to meet the Canadian construction industry’s future staffing needs.
MODERN TIMES; NOVEL APPROACHES
While some tasks are still physically demanding, many aspects of construction have evolved dramatically, with new tools and processes helping to move the industry from the need for brute strength and toughness to put a greater focus on skill and adaptability.
Modular construction is a prime example of how the industry is changing. Modularity and a more industrialized approach to construction paves the way for abbreviated on-site production and creates the safety, quality, cost savings and predictability that make construction jobs more desirable to a broader swath of talent.
Modular design hinges on off-site manufacturing as building components are built in a more controlled and safer environment, which is accessible to more people. In addition to enhanced safety at the jobsite, in the controlled, off-site manufacturing environment, employees enjoy regular hours, predictable commutes, better training and consistent supervision. There are also fewer unknowns compared to the working conditions on a construction site.
GETTING IT RIGHT ON SITE
It’s a tremendous step forward to have so many aspects of the construction process be possible in off-site settings that are more controlled than construction sites of the past, but the unavoidable truth is that some construction work will always need to take place on a worksite. So, the next step to making construction work more welcoming and appealing to all potential workers is addressing the work environment that exists on those construction sites.
Physical safety is paramount to making sites more welcoming to diverse groups, but it is equally essential to create a verbally and emotionally safe space as well.
In a 2021 survey by WomanACT and The Society for Canadian Women in Science & Technology (SCWIST), it was reported that four in 10 Canadians experienced some form of harassment in the workplace. The rate was significantly higher for women (50 per cent) than men (33 per cent) and is quite simply unacceptable. A concerted effort needs to be made to call out bad actors and behaviours.
Empowerment and engagement of team leads (foremen and superintendents) to collaborate and call out opportunities for improvement, and to maintain a productive, protected and healthy work environment, is key to creating a non-hostile work environment — the kind of place people want to show up to daily. The goal is to create a place where workers feel respected and valued.
Beyond the elimination of bad behaviour, proactive companies are investing in a shift toward good behaviours. Leaders, make eye contact, take input from teams, and don’t talk over people. Create a jobsite where people feel valued and safe. This can be encouraged by:
- Making it a condition of employment that people call out bad or hostile behaviour when they see it.
- Making sure jobsite signage and safety posters reflect diversity.
- Amplifying the voice of women and other underrepresented people in meetings.
- Incentivizing subcontractors and supply chains to diversify workforces.
- Providing a suggestion box so people can anonymously provide recommendations or elevate issues.
- Making sure there’s a women’s locker room and lavatory.
- Providing PPE for women.
Not only can technology help us advance projects with safety and efficiency, but it can also help crews and managers work smarter while putting a spotlight on the changes in the kinds of tools used by the trades — including those that will appeal to young potential workers.
We can thank the pandemic for expediting the use of drones for surveying and augmented reality for jobsite inspections. These new tools are enabling project owners and managers to stay abreast of what’s happening without having to be physically on a site. Getting the needed insights to familiarize crews with the site and enable fast decision making to keep projects on track is another huge benefit. Not to mention, an “advance crew” of flying robots keeps workers safe and out of potentially hazardous situations.
In the end, it’s imperative to appeal to future workers in terms that speak to their motivations. Construction is often misunderstood as gritty, labourious and monotonous. As an industry, we must demonstrate that a career in construction comes with opportunity, purpose and security. This vibrant field ensures that its participants are never bored. Each new build brings the opportunity to learn about an entirely new business. It is truly the ideal industry for individuals who are passionate about being continuous learners.
It only takes a few leaders to champion change. It is possible to create a jobsite culture that’s inviting to a more diverse mix of potential new workers. And it is possible to change the perception of the industry so that workers view jobsites as safe places for people of all stripes to work hard, feel valued and build meaningful careers, in a sector that is technology-driven and ever-evolving. Greater diversity and inclusion hold a lot of potential to strengthen Canada’s construction industry and build for the future.
Nancy Novak is the chief innovation officer at Compass Datacenters. With more than 30 years of experience in the construction industry, she brings extensive expertise in cutting edge technology, lean practices and innovative culture through diversity for the construction industry.