On-Site Magazine

From the editor: Bracing for a worker shortage

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March 19, 2019 by David Kennedy

From both a cost-savings and worker retention perspective, embracing advanced technology is really no longer optional for contractors. PHOTO: Getty Images

When waters start rising, prudent people shore up their levees.

The Canadian construction industry faces more of a drought than a flood, but company leaders across the country need to start taking proactive steps to future-proof their businesses.

10 years from now, nearly a quarter of the current construction workforce will be kicking back in retirement and the average worker will be a graying 42-years-old.

While this isn’t news to those who’ve watched the labour market tighten recently, the latest outlook from BuildForce Canada illustrates a number of important points. Foremost among them is that the impending shortage of workers hasn’t reached its peak.

At the end of January, the research organization forecast the construction industry will need to fill about 300,000 positions by 2028. The comparable study released last year showed 277,000 job openings by 2027. While a couple hundred thousand new recruits (221,300 to be exact) are expected, companies will need to attract and retain roughly 80,000 more men and women than currently forecast to ensure the industry is firing on all cylinders a decade from now.   

This is no small task, and clearly, new approaches are necessary. Making the industry more welcoming to underrepresented parts of the labour market is one part of the solution.

Women, for instance, made up just 13 per cent of the construction workforce in 2018, as well as a paltry 3.8 per cent of on-site staff, according to BuildForce. While these figures are moving in the right direction after years of stagnation, companies must do more to make job sites more appealing places for women.

In the same vein, construction has long been a career of choice for immigrants, but as fewer newcomers arrive from Europe and the Americas — replaced by immigrants from Asia — the industry must adapt. Immigrants from countries such as India and China are far less likely to pick construction, so employers need to rejig recruitment initiatives to entice these new Canadians to join their ranks, BuildForce says.

Continued efforts to recruit Indigenous Canadians are also vital to creating a sustainable labour force, though Indigenous Canadians are already more likely to go into construction than the population as a whole.

In conjunction with tapping into underrepresented groups, businesses should be focusing on modernizing the industry to appeal to young recruits. As industries like technology draw away talent, there’s no reason construction can’t push back.

Equipment manufacturers, for instance, have leaned heavily on tools such as joystick controls, simulators and virtual reality in recent years. For a generation raised on video games, the tactics hold a certain appeal, and they have the added benefit of better preparing new operators. In the non-so-distant future, operators may be able to control dozers across the country from their living rooms — not a bad recruitment tool.

Between software-driven solutions and increasingly connected equipment, many Canadian contractors are already employing the type of technology that demands young people’s attention. In some instances, it’s simply a matter of showing it off more effectively, in others, employers will need to invest to keep younger workers engaged.

Despite the added spending and pivots in strategy, in the long run, it’s the contractors who have planned for the shortage who will be in the best position to hang onto their veterans and attract new recruits. Don’t wait until you’re already underwater.


This column originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of On-Site. To read through the entire issue, click here.

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