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Alberta construction companies innovate to fill positions

Russell Hixson
Alberta construction companies innovate to fill positions

One of the biggest challenges facing the construction industry is attracting and retaining workers. Representatives from several major companies shared strategies that have worked for them in a session at Buildex Calgary called For the Love of Tradespeople: Effective Recruitment and Retention Strategies.

Rosemary Sparks, executive director of BuildForce Canada, explained that the late 1990s to 2014 saw massive growth in construction employment, but this growth is leveling off.

"Falling oil prices are going to have a big impact. After 2014 we started to see a slowdown and as we look forward, that big curve is no more," she said. "We are going to see slow growth."

Sparks recalled seeing huge dips in the early 1980s and 1990s during recessions. It’s a situation she is hoping doesn’t repeat itself.

"We lost a generation of apprentices and new workers," she said, noting that even before the construction employment boom the industry had a deficit of labour. She predicts construction unemployment will level out at around eight per cent when ideally it should be at 10 to 12 per cent to have a labour pool to draw from during peaks of activity.

"When we get down to eight per cent we are starting to lose that flexibility," she said.

Sparks also explained that in a best case scenario, Alberta will be able to replenish 33,000 of the 36,000 trade workers it is expected to lose by 2026 and 10,000 of the 14,000 working in the office side of construction.

"Even if we get all that, we are still short 7,000 workers," she said.

Sparks said the industry cannot afford to repeat the 1980s and 1990s and must work to recruit and replenish the workforce by developing apprentice systems, addressing retention issues, facilitating mobility and improving productivity.

Jason Robinson, a talent agent at DIRTT Environmental Solutions, believes there is no big secret to attracting and retaining talent. DIRTT is a technology-driven manufacturer of highly customized interiors.

"Hire for culture," he said. "Find a good fit first and then train later."

This is more so true for DIRTT than other companies due to its radically unique work environment, he said. It has almost no policies, very little separation of management and workers, no dress code, pizza and beer is served, there are no set sick days and the office thrives on collaboration.

"It’s like working at a friend’s house on a Saturday afternoon while they are moving," Robinson said. "Its hard work but it’s a lot of fun."

The business also invests in technology because they see it as an investment in their workforce.

"Tech is not something we are doing because younger generations like to tweet," he said. "It has to be embraced at all levels in your business. When they see you investing in them and the business they want to come back and tell their friends."

Robinson said the company also has a steady stream of young talent moving through its offices. They recently had 66 summer students in Calgary who worked on projects.

DIRTT also takes advantage of the downturns. Rather than cutting they invest in the business and the people. They launch new products, expand offices, increase benefits and company parties.

"We invest in them, they invest in us and it creates a lot of loyalty," Robinson said.

And while they may not be able to compete with the high pay from working in oil and gas, Robinson said DIRTT more than makes up for this in work flexibility and internal opportunities.

"We don’t have an organizational chart," he said. "You can run from one department to another."

Pomerleau Inc., a construction company based in Montreal, has been slowly expanding its national footprint over the years. The company is also addressing the issue of finding and retaining workers as it moves into new markets.

Allan Mackay, Pomerleau’s human resource advisor — Atlantic and Western Canada, explained that the company has only been in Alberta for two years and has a much larger reputation in Eastern Canada. Part of the advantage to getting into Alberta during the oil slump is there is now access to talent that would normally be tied up.

"We see this market as eventually rebounding," said Mackay. "We are getting established now and will be ready to be a major player."

Part of the strategy is relying on clients to help refer workers. They are also utilizing recruitment firms. Earlier this year Pomerleau purchased most of the assets and projects of Giffels Westpro in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. This added roughly 100 more employees.

Pomerleau also invests heavily in student internships, Mackay said. This also is a way for them to see if working at Pomerleau is a good fit for long-term employment. Many of the interns are offered contracts before they graduate and end up working for the company.

"It’s a constant feeder system for us," Mackay said.

He also explained the importance of playing to one’s strengths when recruiting. He recalled working with an urban shipbuilding company in the east for several years. Since they couldn’t offer tradespeople high salaries, Mackay sold them on the opportunities for young families to thrive in the community rather than be stuck out in the oil fields.

Pomerleau also does a lot of cross training to expose new workers to a variety of positions, including some that are extremely difficult to fill. Mackay said workers often change their minds about their career path and these positions are filled.

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