Construction industry facing tight labour market

319,000 workers needed by 2020: Report
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/04/2012

Knowing there’s a major talent shortage when it comes to construction jobs, PCL is launching a new recruitment brand with a promotional campaign that includes billboards, airport ads, open houses, job fairs and social media.

The construction company is also formalizing its referral program, as one-third of 245 new hires in the last six months came via employee referrals, according to Barbara Bunting, who was hired as manager of talent acquisition strategies in Vancouver in February.

The 3,700-employee company is streamlining its efforts to better attract skilled workers, she said.

“We want to show candidates that there is career growth and a career path here and there’s lots of opportunities. We’re trying to show the size and scope and complexity of our billion-dollar jobs and using cutting edge technology, and attract people to be part of something great.”

The company is being more proactive when it comes to workforce planning, said Bunting. HR managers meet on a monthly basis with operations staff to look at what’s coming up. That led, for example, to labour market opinion (LMO) applications for carpenters who will be needed in the next few months.

“We’re really doing stuff to lay the groundwork so that we can react more quickly for people when we need them,” she said.

Canada will need about 319,000 new construction workers from 2012 to 2020 to keep pace with increased construction demand and compensate for a rising number of retirements, according to a report published by the Construction Sector Council (CSC).

The industry will need to replace more than 20 per cent of its current workforce over the next decade, said Construction Looking Forward: 2012-2020 Key Highlights.

“Across the country, in many provinces, if we look at British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, we’re really looking at construction being driven by these resource-based projects,” said Rosemary Sparks, executive director at the CSC in Ottawa. “That’s creating some pretty big construction activity. It’s going to demand a fair amount of labour.”

The industry has basically doubled in size over the last 15 to 20 years and with boomers retiring along with a series of significant construction crashes in the West in the mid-1980s and Ontario in the 1990s, “those things all mitigated against producing more of a workforce,” said CSC labour co-chair Robert Blakely.

The business has changed, he said.

“It is no longer cyclic, it’s no longer dependent on weather. It’s a different industry which has a different look at how it’s going to build itself.”

Industry promotion is a high priority, as construction needs to tap into all potential sources of labour supply, such as youth, women, Aboriginal Peoples, other industries and immigrants, according to CSC business co-chair Tim Flood, president of John Flood and Sons in Saint John, N.B.

“For the last 30 or 40 years, we’ve probably focused on everybody telling our kids to go to university and don’t pick a trade — we’ve ended up with shortages there.”

People see the trades as the refuge of those who didn’t do well enough in high school to get into university, said Blakely.

“The truth is, people who aren’t quite bright and don’t have a basic grasp of math, science, English, problem-solving, literacy skills can’t cut it in the construction industry. You have to be smart enough to be able to get a university degree to complete trades training successfully.”

With machinery and equipment to do most brute strength jobs, there are a number of careers in construction for women who want challenges or are keen to take blocks of time off for kids, he said.

“There’s a whole bunch of opportunities for that, but our education system does not lend itself to saying, ‘Gee, a career in the trades might be a great idea. Come on, girls, let’s think about this one.’”

PCL works with colleges and universities to find potential employees, said Bunting, and it hired 100 students in Toronto alone this summer.

“We know we’ve got to build from the beginning as well,” she said.

Foreign workers are another solution as the company has hired a lot of people from the United Kingdom, South Africa and the United States, she said. Over the last six months, there have been 50 intercompany transfers.

“As the U.S. market is a bit slower, we’ve been utilizing our employees in the U.S. and bringing them across the border for project work and that’s been very, very successful.”

Mobile workers more demanding

Another major challenge for HR managers is tracking the mobility of workers, according to Blakely, who is also director of Canadian affairs for the Building & Construction Trades Department in Ottawa.

While the ability to move around the country is unparalleled, people have become more sophisticated and are less willing to relocate on a whim, he said.

“Now, they want to know there’s going to be a job, they want to know what relocation assistance there is and, generally, it’s not move your wife and children from Nova Scotia to Alberta for a three-month job, it’s ‘Fly me to a project, house me while I’m there, send me home every third week for a week and I’ll keep working happily for a long time.’”

And employers are trying to encourage that, said Blakely. That means fly-in, fly-out schedules, improved accommodations, great meals, better amenities, Internet access and learning opportunities.

Some trades typically employed in major projects, such as boiler makers, are used to being mobile but “some trades that haven’t typically been mobile are requiring more mobility, so that might change things as well,” said Sparks, citing heavy equipment operators as an example. “We don’t know to what extent the new generation of workers is going to want to be mobile. It will be interesting to see how that’s going to play out.”

PCL has a lot of projects in remote camps so it’s had to come up with different incentives to attract people, said Bunting. For example, the company is chartering planes from Edmonton or Calgary or further destinations such as Toronto or St. John’s, N.L., so people can do shift work but still go back home for longer breaks, such as one month on, one month off.

“It’s hard to keep work-life balance, especially in camp situations, so we work to try to make that as easy as possible,” said Bunting.

But those offerings make it tough for employers such as John Flood and Sons when the market is booming. Atlantic Canada continuously loses people to the Western provinces, said Flood.

“The only thing you have to offer is steady employment at home — you can’t compete with the wages in Fort McMurray or Saskatoon or wherever the mega–projects are.”

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