Labour Staffing Shortages, Realities & Solutions
Labour is the single most variable component in most construction activities. Any inability to source, manage, train, or anticipate disruptions to the workforce, puts subcontractors, contractors, owners, and other stakeholders in the project at great risk.
Productivity is the output produced by a unit of study as a proportion of input required to produce it. A host of issues can undermine productivity: unplanned change order disruptions, accidents, continuous overtime burnout, poor site management, no focus on productivity or training, poor documentation (including the lack of an execution plan), failure to embrace continuous improvement and poor communication.
Good Productivity is highly dependent upon several factors, including strong levels of trust and quality collaborative relationships.
Fundamental Labour Statistics
Some basic awareness: the Canadian Construction Labour work force comprises some 1,550,000 members according to BuildForce Canada, with 87.4 % being male and 12.6% female as of July 2021. Employment within the building industry is not yet back to the pre-pandemic levels recorded in July 2019 but the trends are improving and the number of hours worked also continues to expand.
The regional practical labour force available to Alberta currently stands at around 240,000 individuals, with estimates projecting those 40,000 individuals of the current labour forces will retire by 2030. The residential labour force alone on new housing and renovation has around 80,000 individuals employed. The chart graphic depicts a breakdown allocation of the current labour force in Alberta.
Solid, well-rounded experience in any career or trade apprenticeship endeavour is generally regarded to be acquired starting at around 10,000 hours, according to Malcom Gladwell. The 10,000 hours derived from a combination of repeated emphasis and practice on the basics, investment in training, attendance at workshops, reading and developing good mentorships, is essential. Having a solid grasp of upside potential, opportunity, risk knowledge, limitations and constraints is crucial to developing good, well-rounded industry professional expertise.
Current Realities Impacting Labour & Productivity
Globally, all sectors of the new economy operating with just-in-time supply chains are being impacted and disrupted, with resulting construction labour disruption implications and consequences. Ongoing fortuitous black swan events like the Suez Canal blockage, the Texas Ice Storm, or the never-ending US hurricane season and the British Columbia forest fires are all triggers for unplanned and unscheduled labour disruptions in management or at the job site craft workman level.
Material supply chain handling logistic disruptions, cited in The Business Insider in late August, reported that “Forty-four container ships are stuck outside California ports” waiting up to 7.6 days to unload according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. The double and triple increased size of the ships in the last 10 years means longer unloading times; 30 days longer due to port congestion, including the resulting knock-on effect of impacting trucking, rail and logistic operations. Compounding the material logistics problem further are labour shortages arising from COVID issues with disruption in “crew resource management”.
Within the Province of Alberta, the preliminary labour shortfall projections due to the COVID-19 pandemic impacts on in-school training, testing and certification indicate disruption in the flow of available workers in the short term. In the future, an under-supply of skilled trades, such as boilermakers, plumbers, welders, carpenters, glazers and insulators is a significant industry concern.
Countless studies and surveys have shown waste is still rampant in the building industry. Waste has been defined as anything different from the absolute minimum amount of resources, materials, equipment and manpower necessary to add value to a product. Labour waste and value loss can arise in different areas: poor quality-of-work resulting in rework, unproductive waiting time, impractical constructability constraints, poor material logistics and weak or excessive safety protocols. There is plenty of room for continuous labour productivity improvement in this category alone, as described below along with some thoughtful ideas for dealing with labour challenges, both current and future.
Labour Staffing Options & Labour Productivity Risk Mitigation
Several employers have made great strides, acquiring more of the skilled and semi-skilled talent available. In most cases, a more proactive outreach by employers in many organizations is essential, now more than ever.
Canada’s construction industry is the third-largest employer for the Indigenous community, accounting for nearly 10 percent of their available workforce and making up 4.7 percent of total construction employment. The First Nations communities can and do provide excellent training program inducements for their community members who see a future in construction.
While Western Canada has been more effective in attracting a higher allocation of women to the construction industry, there is a lot of potential to grow that participation above the current 15%. The offsite employment figure for female participation in the workforce is very encouraging at nearly 40%, however the onsite employment figure hovers around 5%.
Given the post-secondary education reality stats, which suggest that women are more likely to acquire a college or university degree, women have advanced proportionally and very successfully in project administration and leadership roles. Nonetheless a gap remains in-field which, with leadership encouragement and promotional awareness, could be an attractive route for redressing some of the labour shortage. The Careers in Construction website showcases a high-awareness message directed to open-minded females to consider the possibilities in the building industry.
The influx of highly-talented immigrants is a golden opportunity for the right organization. The Construction Sector Counsel publishes an implementation guide on ‘How to Start and Operate an Immigrant Construction Program’. Many workers approaching retirement would make excellent auxiliary Human Resource additions with superior, experienced staffing value-add contributions to their organizations, working in a semi-retirement capacity performing skills assessment, coaching and training tasks.
Older workers in semi-retirement age could offer a huge pool of talent on many levels. Many management positions could be filled with part-time, highly-experienced career professionals working three days per week, or eight months of the year. After formal retirement, within a year or two, many individuals long to return to the workforce at a more relaxed and modest pace, without the conventional career growth performance pressures and expectations. The mentorship advantage that a 40-year career professional can offer a younger worker is invaluable on just about everything from soft skills development and increased technical skills, to developing leadership potential, perhaps without the instruction about the latest technology app now available.
Accelerated digital transformation of processes and procedures are no longer an option for any business. The success or failure of many organizations, including those in the building industry, will rise or fall in the next 10 years, based on how well organizations manage their data. Therefore, training needs assessment analysis can be a useful approach for employers and employees to close the digital communication skills void and boost the labour productivity gap. If organizations fail to undertake a needs analysis, including what data is important to be managed, and identifying gaps and how to boost productivity, the risk register mitigation implications and resulting labour loss will remain forever elusive.
Risk register tracking for project staffing is essential on two levels, for both craft and salaried staff. Given the traditional history of the construction industry and building organizations’ failure to train their workforce over fear that they might leave may well cost substantially more if those unskilled workers stay or move on to a competitor where training is offered. Many employees, on the other hand, fail to invest in themselves after they hit the workforce, losing site of the fact their educational investment made them an eligible candidate to apply for the position upon graduation.
Implementing proper execution plans with good three week look-ahead schedules is vital to mitigate against labour productivity impacts. While multi-page schedules, with hundreds of task activity lines of the overall project duration lasting several months, might offer the benefit of meeting specified contractual commercial obligations, they do little to focus the attention of stakeholders on the project’s current state. Three fundamental questions need to be addressed in the short term: are the work fronts available, are the materials available and are the men available to do the work?
Many enhancements to productivity can be realized by a change in big picture strategic thinking. Integrated Project Delivery Models and Lean Construction Management principles are gaining global recognition and traction. The IPD model offers a healthy team “emotional buy-in” to the project vision at the outset. The interdependent team collaborative mindset, combined with Work Breakdown Structure packages, is a significant leap forward in breaking down the task-driven silo approach.
Lean construction thinking has the objective of identifying and eliminating sources of waste, including a strong focus by the leadership and culture of the organization on continuous improvement. The benefits of Lean Project Delivery Systems (LPDS), as published by Remon Fayek Aziz & Sherif Mohamed Hafez in the Alexandria Engineering Journal in April 2013, highlights the critical thinking that sets in motion the interdependent functions and rules of decision making. The benefits of documenting lessons learned in waste reduction and enhanced productivity in the Last Planner System cannot be emphasized enough.
There are solutions to the labour problem through a combination of ingenuity and creation of a compelling atmosphere for employees to stay other than the weekly paycheck. Change and willingness to adapt will bring about some pain but, carefully implemented, the payoffs will be enormous.
 Malcolm Gladwell – Outliers The Story of Success
 Training Needs Assessment – Training Needs Assessment: A Must for Developing an Effective Training Program – Judith Brown, 2002 (sagepub.com)
 Structural Engineering Department, Faculty of Engineering, Alexandria University, Egypt accepted 22 April 2013
Jerry Crawford is a claim consulting professional and a registered CIQS, MRICS, PM, GSC designation holder. He currently sits on the ADRIA Board and has taken adjudication training with ADRIC/RICS.
Jerry has over 40 years of construction industry experience, both nationally and internationally. He is the founder and principal director of KGC Consulting Services Ltd. and works with clients in multiple provinces to provide construction dispute litigation support, commercial management, and legal project management services across Canada.