Bridging the Skills Gap

The construction industry can’t just wait for the skilled labour shortage to resolve itself. Industry and government must work together and act now.

Written by Chris Gower, Chief Operating Officer, Buildings – PCL Construction

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published online by PCL. For more informative articles like this one, visit: https://www.pcl.com/ca/en/insights

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 labour 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.

Labour 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 labour 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 labour shortage.

Here are ways that PCL is bringing in more skilled workers and ways that government can help us. 

Collaborate with Local Schools

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-labour 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 per cent of entry-level engineering positions with former students. 

Offer Apprenticeships and Internships

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 labour 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 per cent 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.

Provide Internal Training

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. 

Improve Construction Marketing and Incentives

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.

Access Global Talent

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 labour 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. 

Solve the Shortage, Together

Many positive examples that improve the skilled labour 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 labour shortage. Imagine the impact of a nationwide tax exemption for all skilled labour, like the one implemented in Nova Scotia.

Working together, let’s create sustainable solutions for the labour challenges we face today and prepare for what might come in the future.

Bridging the Skills Gap – The construction industry can’t just wait for the skilled labour shortage to resolve itself. Industry and government must work together and act now.

About the Author

Chris Gower started his career in construction on the tools – framing houses, where he grew a deep appreciation for the trades. Prior to his current role as COO, Buildings, Chris held positions including construction risk manager, senior project manager, district manager and regional vice president. Throughout his more than 25 years at PCL, he has delivered iconic construction projects across Canada, Australia and the United States. As a member of PCL’s Office of the CEO and board of directors, Chris leads a creative team of solution providers who innovatively address construction challenges. He is responsible for the performance of the organization’s Buildings operations across the globe. 

Chris initiated and led PCL’s entrance into the solar business, including the pursuit and award of our first project in Australia. He provides leadership over many in-house-developed technologies, including the ground breaking Job Site Insights®, an IoT Smart construction platform that drives efficiency while increasing safety, productivity and quality. Chris is recognized as an industry leader in construction technology and continues to champion innovation across the organization.

Bridging the Skills Gap – The construction industry can’t just wait for the skilled labour shortage to resolve itself. Industry and government must work together and act now.

About PCL Construction

PCL is a group of independent construction companies that carries out work across the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, and in Australia. These diverse operations in the civil infrastructure, heavy industrial, and buildings markets are supported by a strategic presence in 31 major centers. Together, these companies have an annual construction volume of more than $6 billion USD, making PCL one of the largest contracting organizations in North America. Watch us build at PCL.com.