Top Contractors: Work forges ahead
By Adam FreillConstruction
Not even shortages of materials and labour, rising costs nor ongoing pandemic concerns could put much of a dent in Canada’s construction economy in 2021.
The Canadian construction industry had a relatively strong year in 2021, although some segments had better results than others, and challenges seem to be waiting around every corner. As governments put marketing efforts into addressing the shortage of skilled workers and the supply chain wrestled with getting products onto project sites, building continued despite rising prices for both real estate assets and the products used to build them.
Overall, Statistics Canada reported a record year for building construction, with values jumping almost 20 per cent, to $218.2 billion in 2021.
Much of that rise can be attributed to a significant increase in the value of residential real estate, including in the largest segment, the apartment and condo market, which increased some 22 per cent. The non-residential buildings sector was relatively flat last year, falling just shy of one per cent, but institutional builds were a bright spot, spiking upwards by 12 per cent, paced by hospitals, schools and other such projects.
In addition, the total value of spend on infrastructure assets rose by more than $7 billion on the year, reaching $89.7 billion in 2021. Highways and roads led that segment in both spend and growth, while bridges and tunnels were down on the year but were still considerably higher than three and four years ago.
Looking ahead, escalating construction costs, rising inflation and lending rates, and limited workforce availability are raising some concerns about projects on the drawing board in some regions of the country. Stories have emerged about municipalities putting projects on hold or having to re-tender them after bids came in significantly higher than the anticipated budgets. If there’s an emerging theme, it could be that uncertainty seems to be the common factor that most companies, and their clients, are trying to navigate.
“The return of significant inflation after years of relative stability is having a big impact on our industry,” says Dave Filipchuk, president and CEO of PCL Construction. “Rising inflation creates a volatile marketplace which can result in project losses and subcontractor defaults which negatively impacts the industry as a whole.”
“We have already seen significant cost escalations in the construction industry due to supply chain and materials inflation,” reports Erich Schmidt, manager of innovation and public affairs with the Ontario General Contractors Association. “For non-residential buildings, the year-over-year increase in costs has been 13 per cent in Q1 2022. Many non-residential projects, both public and private, have been deferred or cancelled. And in some cases, that means that projects aren’t coming where they are needed most, like health care, education or food production.”
While challenges remain, participants in On-Site’s 2022 Top Contractors survey are optimistic. The survey of more than 100 construction firms engaged in the Canadian market includes a look at 2021 performance as well as expectations for 2022 to judge sentiment for the year ahead. After a 2021 in which almost all sub-segments were higher on aggregate, most respondent companies reported an expectation for growth in 2022 as the nation continues to build its way out of the pandemic.
“Initially we witnessed a slowdown in construction activity early in the pandemic due to uncertainty and restrictions in place in some areas,” explains Filipchuk. “As we moved through the pandemic and a return to normalcy was in sight, both public sector and private sector clients returned to launching projects which was not at all surprising to us considering the multitude of needs out there. Demand remains strong with opportunities across most sectors in our industry.”
While demand is there, the people and materials needed may not be as easy to find and secure. The biggest challenges in the construction sector right now, says Anthony Minniti, vice-president of operations at general contracting firm CGI Constructors, are “labour availability and inflation.”
TAKING LABOUR SERIOUSLY
Roughly three-quarters of respondents to this year’s survey have seen their companies increase their efforts to attract new workers, with particular emphasis on appealing to traditionally under-represented groups, and crafting programs to introduce the trades to more women, Indigenous people, newcomers and youth.
“Demand over the past 12 months was particularly high for skilled workers,” says Bill Ferreira, executive director of BuildForce Canada. “Employment grew at a higher rate than the labour force, leading to declining unemployment rates in most provinces and increasing labour market tightness in many markets across the country.”
The overall tightness in the market, combined with an aging construction workforce is making it particularly difficult in the building sector.
“Up to a third of skilled trades in construction are nearing retirement,” says Schmidt. “Reports show that we face a shortfall of more than 100,000 construction workers over the next decade.”
That’s already having an impact on jobsites. “Construction staff from the office to the field is in short supply,” states Minniti, adding, “the staff we have are managing day to day inflation pressure.”
“Between 2021 and 2027, approximately 156,000 workers are expected to retire. During this period, the industry is expected to add only 143,000 workers to the industry, creating a gap of some 13,000 workers,” says Ferreira. When combined with anticipated growth in the sector, all indicators would suggest that there will be considerable opportunity for jobseekers for the foreseeable future.
“The construction industry will need to hire nearly 172,000 workers over the next six years to replace retiring workers and keep pace with currently known construction demands,” he says.
As companies work with industry associations to help promote construction- related careers, he says that workforce development needs to be the focus as luring employees away from other companies does little to help the industry as a whole. “With retirements increasing, the latter strategy may solve short-term problems, but only kicks the problem down the road because it does nothing to address the long-term needs of the industry.”
IS THERE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE SUPPLIES TUNNEL?
As much of the construction industry was at work throughout the pandemic, availability and price of supplies became a focal point. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 impacting fuel prices, creating additional upward pressure on shipping and pushing prices up in all sectors, construction companies are now leaning on some of what they learned navigating Covid-related supply chain challenges to help them navigate these more recent pressures.
“Inflation has hit our industry hard with significant increases to material costs including concrete, steel and other important building materials. This means, now more than ever, general contractors need to be really concerned about how they manage their projects and supply chains,” says Schmidt.
“Global supply chain disruptions continue to persist which puts strain on overall project schedules, and also contributes to this more volatile marketplace,” says Filipchuk. “Shortages and price fluctuations have led us to rely more on stockpiling supply rather than just-intime delivery.”
Stockpiling does bring additional costs, however, as warehousing, insurance and logistics needs all need to be considered. In some cases, he says that alternative products have been considered, often from more local sources, which can mitigate some of the additional costs.
In addition to investigating new product options, his company is also communicating with its clients in ongoing efforts to work together with owners and procurement agencies to avoid surprises and consider the impact that actual inflation may have on project budgets. “This involves identifying inflation risks and creating plans with all project participants to manage the risk in a fair manner,” he says.
Communicating with customers and suppliers is a key point that several companies cited as being critical to a successful outcome.
“Our goal is to have all submittals tracked and submitted in the first one-fifth of every project,” says Minniti. “This allows subtrades and manufacturers to secure materials as soon as possible.”
Looking forward, Ferreira says that supply chain issues are expected to be worked out in a relatively short timeframe, with most supply chain issues expected to be managed by 2023, which will also help reduce some of the pressure currently being felt.
The lingering impacts of the current pressures could provide some net-positive outcomes in the coming years, however. Lessons learned about the sharing of risks, the openness to new products and techniques, as well as the use of technology to be more efficient on job sites, can all be used to help future projects.
For example, Minniti sees the development and use of more pre-manufactured building elements to be a growth opportunity, and Filipchuk expects to see more smart sensors on sites as the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are embraced by the industry.
“A wide range of data can be collected to help our project teams execute our work safely and efficiently,” says Filipchuk. “For example, real-time tracking allows us to reduce our carbon footprint during construction, protect buildings and critical systems against water damage during construction, and turn raw data from building automation and mechanical systems into actionable insights to improve commissioning and building management.”
His company has also been using “Spot” a robotic dog that uses cameras and AI to collect data and track progress. “AI can potentially lead to safer sites and help with labour shortage where applicable.”
Even heavy machinery is getting a tech make-over, as remotely operated equipment is quickly becoming a reality, and virtual spaces are making it possible to connect with almost anyone at any time, from anywhere, to keep projects on pace.
“The use of real-time cameras to review site conditions will drastically change the way we work in the coming years,” says Minniti. “Work from anywhere, with more staff working from various locations, the need to have stable infrastructure to connect engineers, architects, contractors and owners will be at the forefront of collaboration this year.”