Finding solutions to Canada’s construction labour shortage
By Angelo SuntresConstruction Labour
Fostering inclusion, collaboration and psychological safety on Canada’s jobsites will be critical to overcoming the labour shortage.
It seems almost impossible to avoid mention of the labour shortage in mainstream and social media these days and, despite rumblings having been around for as long as many workers can remember, it does not seem that much was done to prevent it. But there are some potential solutions that may be easier to implement than you think.
There are currently amazing efforts backed by industry and government to get more people interested in construction careers, especially skilled trades, and it is working to some extent, but numbers can be deceiving.
According to a recent assessment by BuildForce Canada, 245,100 Canadians will be retiring from the construction labour force by 2032. This will be offset by 237,800 new entrants. There is also a projected need for an additional 54,100 workers in the same period to meet projected market demands, leaving the country with 61,400 vacancies that will need to be filled.
This number of unfilled roles is alarming and will be no small challenge to overcome; however, when you dig deeper into the numbers things become even more concerning. The figures in the assessment address the quantity of workers but leave the quality untouched. They imply that one new entrant is equivalent to one retiree or, in other words, a supervisor with 30 years of experience is considered equal to a first-year apprentice, a stark contrast.
This information is not highlighted to be alarmist but rather to emphasize the importance of the issue and everyone’s required involvement in the solutions.
So how did we get to this point? And what do we do now?
Although the labour problem is well known and has been thoroughly discussed, it appears that there has been little focus put on potential solutions — aside from getting more people of different demographics into the workforce, including underrepresented populations like women, BIPOC and immigrants.
Looking to the future in the traditionally white male-dominated world of construction, the key to success in overcoming the labour shortage will surely be by means of fostering inclusion, collaboration and psychological safety. These factors will not only personally benefit people in the workforce but also have a profound impact on project success, efficiency and overall industry growth. But before you can jump into solutions, it is important to understand why the problem exists in the first place.
The construction industry today faces both external and internal challenges that have worsened the effects of the labour shortage. From outside looking in, it does not appear to be a great place to work. Much of the general population views construction as a hinderance on their morning commute with noise and air pollution from machinery and stereotypically gruff workers. From this perspective you might say that construction has a marketing issue.
Internally, we often do a terrible job with how we treat others and fail in our attempts to create a positive human experience both on-site and in the office. Examples of this can be found in the quality of site washrooms and the often combative, argumentative, and litigious nature of the industry today.
Simply put, the human experience in the construction industry has been systemically lackluster and exclusive, and adding more diverse populations of people into the current state of the industry alone will not solve the problems we are facing. In fact, it may make them worse or even introduce new ones.
The future of construction will require a true shift in traditional mindsets and a re-evaluation of what it means to be inclusive and collaborative, and to provide psychological safety so that everyone can thrive and be their best. These terms are not used as buzzwords for marketing copy but as calls to action for anyone reading this.
The challenges we are facing today are not isolated to executive leadership or human resources, although those groups will play a key role in helping to address them. The responsibility extends beyond any specific role or department. It is up to everyone, at all levels of organizations, to think critically about how they treat their co-workers, customers, suppliers and vendors, and how that treatment impacts the overall industry ecosystem.
When people feel unsafe, they are distracted by risks or concerns and their performance, relationships and careers all suffer. When defining safety, many people consider only physical safety. While that has improved drastically in recent decades reducing physical harm and loss exponentially, imagine the impact on the workforce and industry if the same efforts were focused on psychological safety. It would be extremely beneficial to worker productivity and team performance, especially as it pertains to the labour shortage and diversity initiatives which are, after all, “people problems” that cannot be simply solved by technology.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by such widespread, complex and overarching issues but here are six things you can start doing right now to make the construction industry more appealing for existing and prospective workers, while fostering inclusion and collaboration to develop an environment of psychological safety.
Companies can invest in ongoing training and education programs that inform employees about the challenges the industry is currently facing and how to address them. These programs can help break down stereotypes and biases while equipping workers with the tools to recognize and address them. By fostering a culture of learning and open-mindedness, construction companies can create an atmosphere of inclusivity, making a more welcome environment for all.
Diversify the workforce
Encourage your organization to actively diversify its workforce. Embrace gender, ethnic and age diversity. Research consistently shows that diverse teams are more innovative and effective. By attracting and retaining a broader talent pool, the companies can tap into fresh perspectives and ideas, ultimately benefiting not only projects and teams, but the industry as a whole. For this step to be successful, organizations must first complete the point above to ensure a culture that embraces differences and challenges and understands how to overcome them.
Promote collaborative decision-making at all levels of your organization. Encourage workers to provide input and feedback, regardless of their position or title. This not only leads to more well-rounded decisions, but also makes everyone feel valued and heard, contributing to psychological safety. Be clear that their involvement is important and valued but they must be reasonable about the outcome even if it does not go their way. Communication goes a long way to avoid conflict.
Mentorship and leadership development
Establish mentorship programs to help everyone, including underrepresented groups, advance in their careers. Encourage senior leaders to mentor and sponsor diverse talent. This will not only provide opportunities for career growth but also create a culture of support and mentorship that boosts psychological safety. This is an important factor to address the labour shortage as a key to the future will be doing more with less. Broaden the reach of mentors.
Communication, transparency and authenticity
Emphasize transparent communication and follow through with actions. Ensure that all workers are well-informed about project/corporate goals, progress, and any changes. Clear, open communication fosters trust and reduces anxiety, two essential components of psychological safety. Ensuring that actions are consistent with communication will reinforce the value. And beware that actions that are misaligned with communications will be off-putting and detrimental to the organization.
Zero-tolerance for harassment
Enforce a zero-tolerance policy for harassment, discrimination and bullying. Create a reporting system that protects whistleblowers and ensures swift and appropriate action against offenders. An environment free from harassment is a cornerstone of psychological safety.
The construction industry stands to gain significantly by prioritizing inclusion, collaboration and psychological safety as core values for the future. These principles not only improve the well-being of the workforce, but also lead to better project outcomes, increased innovation and enhanced reputation, all of which will help to address the labour shortage. By embracing these ideas, construction can build a brighter and more inclusive future for all involved.
A published author, Angelo Suntres is a passionate leader with 18 years of experience in the construction industry, designing and building in the ICI sector, representing both contractors and owners. Check out his book and guides at his website, www.angelosuntres.com.