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Workforce, technology top future challenges: CCA report

Grant Cameron
Workforce, technology top future challenges: CCA report

 

This is the first in a two-part series on a report released by the Canadian Construction Association that reflects the thoughts of industry leaders on the key trends impacting the sector over the next five to 10 years. The report, done in partnership with Abacus Data, explores five themes. Today, we look at the state of the workforce and the effect of technology on the industry. Tomorrow, we look at the effect of market forces on the industry, changes in the world of procurement, and the future of associations.

The pool of construction workers in Canada is shrinking and contractors aren’t using technologies to fill the shortages and augment the productivity of their workforce, according to a new report on key trends impacting the industry released by the Canadian Construction Association (CCA).

There is “significant concern” over the projected skills and labour shortages in the construction industry, partly driven by demographic issues, aging workers and negative perceptions about construction, the report states, but also by lagging adoption of new technologies by the industry.

CCA president Mary Van Buren says the findings should sound alarm bells for the industry and alert contractors to the need for a sustained national campaign to promote careers in construction.

“There is a war for talent at a time when Canada’s infrastructure is aging. We need to build new sustainable infrastructure and attract a tech savvy, creative workforce to build the Canada of the future,” she comments.

While there have always been booms and busts in construction, the industry has always been able to recruit people when the need arose, says Van Buren. But this time is different as the world is changing and construction is not seen as the employer of choice by the younger generation, so the industry needs to let future generations know about the breadth of career opportunities.

 

It will take a sustained effort over many years,

— Mary Van Buren

Canadian Construction Association

 

“We need a sustained, national campaign to show how the industry is a fit for everyone — engineers, drone pilots, carpenters and lawyers and everyone in between,” she says. “The industry represents seven per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product and employs 1.5 million people. This campaign needs to target parents, educators, politicians and of course our potential workforce.”

With fewer Canadians seeing construction as an attractive or viable career, the report states that the industry will have trouble maintaining a large enough workforce to keep up with demand. While the shortage will be felt across all construction occupations, it will be more acute among estimators, project managers and Building Information Modeling (BIM) specialists.

The report highlights several reasons youth are put off construction, namely the volatile and fluctuating nature of the work, long hours which affect work-life balance, and the fact the industry often requires workers to travel and put in long hours which many new recruits see as a barrier.

While it seems dire, Van Buren says the situation can be turned around and there is a big opportunity to tap into under-represented groups like women, Indigenous peoples and new Canadians.

“It will take a sustained effort over many years,” she said. “We are not starting from ground zero — companies have been recruiting from under-represented segments for many years — but we have not done it consistently, as an industry.”

With increasing demand, construction firms that have adopted new technologies are competing over a small number of qualified professionals, the report states, which is affecting many of the highest-skilled professions, including BIM practitioners, estimators, project managers and electricians.

On the technology side, the report states that Canadian construction firms are behind international competitors in innovation because they are resistant to change and lack resources to invest.

As project owners start demanding new capabilities such as 3D-printed buildings and international players from innovative markets enter the Canadian construction market to meet that demand, domestic firms will be under even greater pressure to innovate, the report states.

A key barrier is that market competition for private-sector projects tends to force a race to the low-cost bid which results in less investment in innovation, states the report. Adopting new innovation can increase risk, which is usually downloaded to the contractor and not shared with the owner.

Van Buren maintains that a cultural shift is needed, away from the lowest price to the greatest value.

“It is common in the industry to award contracts to the low-cost bidder,” she notes. “This does not allow for pricing innovation and the risks that come with including innovations into projects.”

The report notes that the trend towards using technology will increase in the industry, as such devices as drones are now a staple tool that will continue to improve surveying and inspection tasks.

An interesting impact, says Van Buren, will come from mining data and using predictive analytics across construction projects.

“This is pretty much in its infancy and will grow as more infrastructure uses the IoT or other methods to collect data,” she comments.

The data, she says, will help improve maintenance by creating knowledge around ideal replacement times of parts or components, guide traffic flows to alternate routes when vehicles are autonomous, and inspect hard-to-reach infrastructure by providing digital images.

“This will lead to whole new business models and all kinds of technology-centric careers that don’t exist today,” says Van Buren.

However, while technology has many advantages, such as improving safety through practices as employing autonomous vehicles in mines, providing tools that allow people who are not as strong to do the work and boosting productivity with software to manage projects, Van Buren cautions there’s a limit to the benefits.

“Technology will not necessarily solve labour shortages, but it will help keep Canadian firms competitive, ensuring rewarding work for years to come,” she says.

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