Innovation is rapidly changing the construction industry and if Alberta is to remain competitive the old method of training and upgrading skilled trades workers must evolve, says a report prepared recently for contractors, developers, educators, researchers and worker groups in in the province.
The report, called Upskilling Alberta’s Construction Workforce: A Response to Changing Technology, concludes that if the industry doesn’t change, Canadian firms will be outcompeted by those from abroad.
“Significant barriers exist in the way the industry operates, the incentives for change, and how training is currently delivered,” the report states. “But efforts to ready the sector for change are necessary. Alberta’s construction industry risks being left behind and outcompeted in an increasingly challenging marketplace if efforts are not made to identify and overcome barriers to adopting emerging technologies.”
The report identified a number of systemic barriers to prevent adoption of new technologies, including the lack of skilled labour, industry fragmentation, lack of collaboration and knowledge exchange, and also notes that the training system needs to be reformed as there’s no mandatory requirement for journeypeople to upgrade their skills, which may mean apprentices won’t learn new skills.
“If we want to have a highly skilled workforce going forward, it would be logical to train the new up-and-coming apprentices with these new technologies but the reality is that 80 per cent of their training is actually on the job,” said Ken Gibson, executive director at the Alberta Construction Association.
“If we want to be successful at that we actually have to have a training system for the journeypeople and that does not currently exist in any kind of organized or accessible system. The next step is to have some pretty wide discussion about this, but it is going to need some people making a pretty big commitment of being able to free up their folks and finding the resources to develop and then pay for the training.”
Terry Parker, executive director of the Building Trades of Alberta, says it’s important to overcome barriers and ensure journeypersons are upskilled so the province has the most competent trades in the industry. An issue, though, he notes is making sure trades can take training but not lose out financially.
“It comes back to one of the biggest barriers that we face, which is taking an individual off of a work phase and putting them back into a school situation in order for them to get that knowledge base that they need. There are advancements happening all the time and we have to work collaboratively to make our market as competitive as possible and make our individuals as most employable as possible too.”
The industry may have to look at other ways of providing training, though, such as through online learning, he says.
“I think we have to look at everything. In times of COVID-19, we’re all starting to do things a little bit differently. We started doing conference calls and that was working okay, but not to the same extent as in-person. Now, it’s video-conferencing. Even the people that didn’t like change, are accepting and evolving.”
Dennis Perrin, Alberta director for CLAC, says the industry needs to have a conversation to move the trades forward.
Many professions such as teachers or doctors are required to keep current with the times but that doesn’t exist in the trades, and a pipefitter, for example, can work for 40 years and not upgrade their skills.
Most workers want to keep up with the times, he says, but the industry must figure out a way to ensure skilled trades can update their skills and ensure they do not lose out financially in order to do so.
“Most of them are not content to just say, ‘Okay, I’ve completed and now I never need to learn anything else.’ There’s a desire on the part of most tradespeople to keep learning more and evolving those skillsets.”
The need for innovation in construction is evident as Alberta is projected to lose about 40,000 trades primarily due to retirement in the next eight to 10 years so there will be a shortage if they’re not replaced. Canadian firms are also increasingly facing competition from those in Europe, Asia, and the United States.
“Alberta firms need to embrace innovation before they are outcompeted by their competitors that to a large extent already have adopted these new technologies,” the report states. “Without a co-ordinated effort to ensure their workforce has the required skills to succeed, Alberta’s construction industry risks falling behind.”
The type of skill sets that the construction industry will need to attract and retain workers will be different than in the past, the report notes, and new technologies such as prefabrication, 3D printing, and automation are changing the way that projects are constructed, and shifting the required skill sets.
The report is viewed as a common starting point to assist the industry in adapting to technological change. It suggests that discussion amongst networks in construction needs to continue and that strong champions and engaged, committed people in the industry are needed to co-ordinate action.