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Construction companies say digital technology key to addressing labour shortages

TORONTO — Nine in 10 Canadian construction companies say they are dealing with a shortage of skilled labour or trades — and it's affecting their ability to bid on projects and meet deadlines amid unprecedented demand.
Construction cranes tower above condos under construction near southeast False Creek in Vancouver on February 9, 2020. Nine in 10 Canadian construction companies say a chronic shortage of skilled labour is impacting their ability to bid on projects and meet project deadlines amid unprecedented demand. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

TORONTO — Nine in 10 Canadian construction companies say they are dealing with a shortage of skilled labour or trades — and it's affecting their ability to bid on projects and meet deadlines amid unprecedented demand.

The industry widely views digital technology as a solution to addressing those shortages, according to a survey of 275 construction companies released Tuesday by KPMG Canada.

"We're hearing across the industry that there are shortages of people," said Tom Rothfischer, the national industry leader for KPMG in Canada's building, construction, and real estate practice.

"Technology is not something that they historically had a lot of time for in my experience and to see this recalibration was a real eye-opener for us, and it's a welcome eye opener."

Survey respondents said Canada's construction industry has been slow to adopt new digital technologies, with nearly three-quarters feeling the sector lags behind other countries in that regard, but that the pandemic has intensified the sector's need to adapt.

Mary Van Buren, president of the Canadian Construction Association, attributed those lags to Canada's harsh climate and reliance on public procurement processes, which prioritize low-cost bids.

"When you're putting in a low-cost bid, there's very little room for innovation, there's very little room to try new things because the risk is generally downloaded to the contractor," she said.

"Unless we move to different models, whether it's best value, or we use more collaborative models where there's sharing of the risk and the benefits among those who are buying construction and those who are doing the construction, then it's going to be tougher to see much greater adoption of technology."

She said approximately 75 per cent of Canada's construction industry consists of small businesses with five or fewer employees, which makes adoption of new technology more financially challenging.

But Rothfischer said increased use of digital tools such as robots and drones can help companies save time and money, reduce waste and improve worker safety.

Around 46 per cent of companies said they plan to spend more than 11 per cent of their corporate operating budget on tech and digital transformation, while one-third anticipate spending six to 10 per cent.

Jordan Thomson, senior manager of infrastructure advisory at KPMG in Canada, pointed to technologies used in the manufacturing sector such as 3D printing, which has been adapted for the construction industry to lay concrete and build complex steel shapes, along with drone-based surveying, which can help contractors accurately lay out work and monitor progress. 

Van Buren also highlighted the increased use of exoskeletons, which she called, "helping devices."

"You can imagine you're working over your head a lot, your arms and shoulders get fatigued. These exoskeletons take some of that pressure off," she said. 

"So we're seeing all kinds of new helping devices come out as well, which should help workers be able to work more productively and hopefully attract some other workers to our industry."

Other examples of technological adoption include robots that can lay bricks and tie steel reinforcement bars. Thomson said contractors have increasingly been using Boston Dynamics' mobile robot dog, known as Spot, which is capable of navigating terrain in order to automate routine inspections and capture data.

"They're using it to free up a field engineer to do more value-add kind of activity," said Thomson. "It's a very simple thing. It's not expensive and reduces fatigue."

But that doesn't mean robots are set to take over human jobs en masse, he said.

"I don't think it's a question of replacing people. I think it's a question of empowering people that we have and doing more with less," said Thomson.

"There's so much work out there that a project cannot be done because there's just not enough people to do it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2023.

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press