Walk past a few local businesses and you’ll see “We’re hiring” signs hanging from the windows. Governments have relaxed pandemic restrictions and demand is increasing for goods and services, so addressing the labor shortage is a top concern of employers.
According to the Business Council of Canada, COVID-19 has exacerbated the growing demand for skilled workers. A recent Global News report found that more than half of all small businesses in Canada struggle to hire enough staff to meet demand, even as wages rise.
Even before the pandemic, the construction industry was challenged by a shortage of skilled workers. Fewer young people see construction as a viable career, and employee attrition is accelerating. Although thousands of employees enter the construction industry each year, that number is dwarfed by the number of Baby Boomers retiring – and retirement numbers are expected to increase even more in the next decade. Talent pipelines, which traditionally developed workers and moved them into the workforce, are not preparing enough workers to meet demand.
Labor shortages in the construction sector can cause project delays, an increased risk of safety incidents due to inexperienced employees, and pressure on the already-thin margins and tight timelines that we operate on. Without a sufficient supply of labor through the post-pandemic boom in infrastructure spending and new builds, builders will struggle to meet client demand.
According to the Home Builder Institute, the U.S. construction industry needs more than two million workers over the next three years – just to keep up with demand. Failing to meet that demand will have dire consequences for the people and communities needing housing and infrastructure. Governments have a stake in this shortage, too.
Many factors contribute to this skill shortage, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Change won’t happen overnight, either. One thing is clear: the construction industry can’t afford to wait for the shortage to resolve itself – we must proactively build the pipeline that leads to careers in our industry. At PCL Construction, we’ve been building this pipeline for a long time. However, builders need government to enact policies and programs that meaningfully address the skilled labor shortage.
Here are ways that PCL is bringing in more skilled workers and ways that government can help us.
To effectively build the pipeline from high school to a career in construction, we must let students know that our industry offers them rewarding careers.
PCL makes presentations to kindergarten to grade 12 students, which gives them hands-on experience and exposure to the built environment. Our Careers in Construction presentation teaches children about apprenticeships and the value of “getting paid to learn.” In partnership with our virtual design and construction department, we’ve created fun and engaging sessions for young students to virtually tour our job sites.
PCL supports many post-secondary institutions as well. Employees and leadership sit on advisory boards for numerous college programs and professional associations across Canada, including the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta. Our Bakersfield, California, office partners with the Regional Occupational Center to teach construction skills to high school students and adults.
In Houston, Texas, we’re involved with the Construction Careers Youth Committee who promote and support construction industry workforce education at public schools. Across the United States, we partner with STEMBLazers, an organization that introduces and promotes science and engineering careers to girls in grades 7 to 12.
We also partner with educational institutions by sponsoring scholarships and awards, which strengthen the skilled-labor pipeline in our communities. Since 2017, PCL has donated over $1 million to post-secondary institutions across Canada and the United States.
The results of this outreach speak for themselves. Each year, PCL gives more than 500 interns from 94 colleges and universities in Canada and the United States real-world experience in the construction industry and their area of study. This year, 107 former students joined PCL full time, and we filled nearly 80% of entry-level engineering positions with former students.
PCL offers apprenticeships which combine classroom instruction with on-the-job training, resulting in formal credentials earned by the apprentice at the end of the training period. They offer the added benefit of paid positions while apprentices complete their education.
PCL sponsors Skills Canada to support the training and education of tradespeople. We have workforce groups in local post-secondary schools and high schools and work with each province’s Registered Apprenticeship Program.
Across our broad geographic footprint each PCL region has its own recruitment strategy, we often take a two-pronged approach: (1) We work with labor organizations to recruit for the construction industry and (2) we work with local agencies who can train and assess potential employees.
Canadian and U.S. governments, of course, play a huge role in making apprenticeships more attractive and could learn from programs put in place across Europe. European governments often provide funding and reimbursements for apprenticeship training. In Switzerland, a remarkable 70% of teens are apprentices, thanks to its strong upper secondary education system.
The good news is that Canadian and U.S. governments are making progress on a number of fronts. In Ontario, the provincial government is providing free training and paid apprenticeships for people to become electricians.
At PCL, our internal training regimen is also crucial for creating our own workforce. Investing in our workers through education, experience and exposure builds valuable skills and well-rounded employees. Plus, mentorship programs and learning tools are key catalysts for developing strong leaders.
For more than 25 years, our in-house PCL College of Construction has offered 2,000-plus custom-designed courses ranging from basic to expert learning levels. Our Accelerated Superintendent Development Program identifies high-potential PCL employees in the field. Accelerating field leader development is vital for PCL’s continued success. Participants learn the technical aspects of the role, are exposed to all phases of the project life cycle and gain critical behavioral and leadership skills. This early development of superintendents creates a pipeline of talented builders.
We also offer the Accelerated Estimating and Construction Risk Management Program, which identifies and develops rising leaders in our Estimating and Construction Risk Management stream. The program focuses on three components in these business-critical roles: behavioral development, technical development and practical experience.
Too often, students and their parents have a misconception that construction work is a dead end, dangerous, boring and outdated. Constructors must tackle these misconceptions by communicating the advanced technologies now used in construction and identifying other benefits such as gaining an education without incurring heavy student debt and being well compensated for construction work.
Governments can take a leadership role in this regard, too. The government of Nova Scotia, for example, eliminated the provincial portion of personal income tax on the first $50,000 of annual income for construction trade workers under 30. Initiatives like these provide stability and compensation, which encourages people to continue working in the trades.
The construction industry and governments must work together to bring in workers from across the world who are looking for good careers in markets that need their skills. During previous worker shortages, immigration helped us achieve the outcomes our clients needed, and in depressed markets, we partnered with local recruitment agencies. We’ve hired skilled workers from countries such as India, the Philippines, Ireland, Poland and Trinidad and partnered with government to ensure we could employ these people in a timely manner.
Because processing paperwork can be lengthy and expensive, fast-track immigration programs can help. The Canadian government pledged to establish a Trusted Employer system, which would streamline the application process for companies hiring temporary foreign workers to fill labor shortages that can’t be filled by Canadians. A system like this would reduce red tape and address the skilled worker shortage we now face. The sooner the Trudeau government can implement this campaign promise, the better. Previously, when governments partnered with us to accelerate hiring skilled workers for specific shortages, we experienced great success, which has positive ramifications for the entire economy.
Many positive examples that improve the skilled labor shortage are noted here, but to make tangible improvements – to make a critical difference – we need construction industry stakeholders to do more. So please consider your options and then act.
We also urgently need more action from governments. In so many ways, the government could help solve the skilled labor shortage. Imagine the impact of a nationwide tax exemption for all skilled labor, like the one implemented in Nova Scotia.
Working together, let’s create sustainable solutions for the labor challenges we face today and prepare for what might come in the future.