For years, the construction industry across North America has seen fewer skilled tradespeople enter the workforce, creating challenges in getting projects completed on time and within budget. While the labour shortage is not new, it is reaching a breaking point.
BuildForce Canada’s 2014-2015 report, ‘Building a Strong and Vital Construction and Maintenance Workforce,’ estimated that over twenty percent of Canada’s existing construction workers would retire in the next ten years, with numbers going even higher in eastern provinces, up to twenty-five percent.
In the United States, the situation is no better. Eighty-two percent of National Association of Home Builders’ members, when surveyed, stated their greatest concerns as the readiness of workers and the costs of their wages. The situation particularly affects smaller and medium-sized firms that do not have the financial resources of larger companies.
Reasons behind the employee shortage – which has been steadily worsening for decades – are numerous and are reflected in the numbers of both older, seasoned workers who are departing the industry and fewer younger people who are entering it. During the downfall of the global economy a decade ago, with construction projects slowing down or stopping altogether, some skilled workers left the industry, never to return. And although the industry is rebounding, the shortfall still exists.
One of the persistent factors undermining the construction and manufacturing industries is the myth, perpetuated by high school guidance councillors for over thirty years, that such jobs are ‘dirty, dangerous, and demeaning.’ Many students who expressed interest in blue-collar jobs were instead directed toward ‘clean’ white-collar office careers by schools and parents.
While some parents steered their children away from construction, citing hard work and long hours, safety risks, job uncertainty, and low wages, those in the industry argue that nothing could be further from the truth. While pay scales vary by state and province, some specialized positions in electrical maintenance and automation offer $50 (CDN) per hour and more for experienced workers, while salaries for skilled residential carpenters are approximately $78,000 per year.
Additionally, tools and equipment have evolved, as have safety regulations and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as helmets, eyewear, work boots, safety harnesses, respiratory devices, and more, making workplace danger less of an issue than in the past.
Despite the boom in building across much of the U.S. and Canada and the offer of well-paying jobs, the construction industry continues to face a shortage of workers. An estimated one million positions need to be filled, and construction companies are using a combination of traditional methods and new, unique ways to bolster their ranks.
Some are turning to high schools and job fairs to demonstrate the benefits of working in the trades and recruit future employees through internships and related courses. Others are finding relatable ways of reaching youth.
Companies are going beyond well-known job recruitment websites like Monster.com and LinkedIn and increasingly turning towards social media sites including Facebook, Facebook Messenger ads, Twitter, and Instagram. One of the advantages of these sites and others is the ability to reach a reach a very wide audience through algorithms including likes, interests, and hobbies, targeting those who might have an interest in construction.
As some companies increase their online presence to target potential young workers, others are using other methods like drones and virtual reality to attract today’s tech-savvy generation. This modern mindset also extends to training where some construction company owners are using mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, as valuable training tools.
We live in a highly connected world, where many workers check their phones up to ten times an hour, so why not capitalize on using this screen time for training? Compared to textbooks, where information is delivered in large and sometimes overwhelming chunks, digital formats are used for smaller bits of material in video, audio, or text format, which makes teaching and learning easier.
Mobile instruction is viewed at the convenience of the employee, on his or her time, no matter where he or she is located. Along with being easy to update compared to costly printed educational materials, online training can actually be cheaper to provide than traditional bricks-and-mortar learning, as no physical space is needed to be rented or in-class teachers to be hired.
For the construction industry, the dire need for fresh talent pools of workers cannot be understated. Last April, the Vancouver Real Estate Forum met to discuss housing affordability, reported Joannah Connolly in Burnaby Now. At the forum, Concert Properties President and Chief Executive Officer Brian McCauley addressed the province’s goal of 114,000 affordable homes to be created over the next decade.
The issue of construction costs and a lack of labour were at the forefront of the conversation, and McCauley stated that the ambitious project “would require double the output of the current infrastructure in the building industry. We can’t ignore the fact that we just don’t have the capacity to build housing as fast as we need to.”
Financial incentives like on-the-job training and higher pay are also being employed, and schools are using science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes to increase awareness of applications to other areas related to construction, like architecture and design.
The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) gives its mission as providing “members with opportunities for professional development, education, networking, leadership training, public service and more.” According to NAWIC, citing the US Bureau of Labor Statistics report of 2017, women comprise just 9.1 percent of the construction sector, about 939,000 workers in the United States, and earn an average of 95.7 percent as much as their male counterparts. This wage gap is significantly lower than for the U.S. average where women earn 81.1 percent of a man’s wage.
As well as hiring more women, recent immigrants, minorities, and unskilled people, companies’ other solutions to the ongoing shortage of construction workers include apprentice-hiring, which is required in Alberta for some construction trades. While this presents challenges, there is a case to be made for under-skilled employees. Despite lacking in skills, getting new staff on board who are eager to learn, enthusiastic, and show genuine initiative can foster a dedicated workforce. While this involves on-the-job training and sometimes classroom settings, this strategy can pay off.
Financial platform Trading Economics says that, in the United States, the gross domestic product (GDP) from construction continues to rise, from $637.30 billion in the first quarter of 2018 to $641.40 billion in the second quarter.
Even as the number of workers declines, all types of new construction are on the rise, including single and multi-family housing, public works, manufacturing plants, educational facilities, and others, it is predicted that U.S. construction starts will increase from $807 billion in 2018 to $808 billion in 2019, according to the Dodge Construction Outlook compiled by construction data firm Dodge Data & Analytics. The construction industry needs to embrace innovative ways to bring new workers into the fold, including digital training and making trades attractive to young workers.