Concrete Future: Construction’s Pending Labour Problem

The Construction Industry Needs an Equitable Update

We can address the looming skilled labour shortage by hiring more women, but retaining those employees will require systemic change.
Read More

“You can’t automate building panels or hanging drywall,” says Santosh Mohanan, who has spent the last several years in construction as VP of Operations at Vancouver area company Syber Concrete Forming. Mohanan is concerned about what he sees as an impending labour crunch in the construction industry. “The industry needs to wake up and treat this as a real priority,” he says. 

Factors in Construction Labour Shortage

“I just don’t think that we realize the importance of individuals putting hammers in concrete at minus 10 degrees,” says Mohanan. He describes a bidding war for talent taking place in an industry that he says is known for employees “walking across from one side to the other to get hired.” 

Construction still relies on hard physical work, which means that younger workers are constantly needed in order to replace those who age out of certain roles. Finding them, though, is easier said than done.

“We are either going to have to do it by training our people or through immigration,” says Mohanan. “There are no other ways.”  

Why Aren’t Young People Entering the Construction Industry? 

There is a good living to be made in the construction industry, but, according to Mohanan, it’s often not enough to entice young people as they contemplate their future. “Money is not the object,” he notes, “it’s just not something they’re looking for.”

The industry veteran acknowledges the difficulties inherent to a career in construction. “Ours is not the cleanest industry,” Mohanan admits. Positions like field worker, for instance, can be particularly challenging. “You can’t do a lifestyle sell on that one,” he concedes. 

Another deterrent may be the high level of commitment necessary to achieve success.  

“I don’t know if people are willing to put the time into the education process,” says Mohanan, who also believes that acquiring seals, completing time requirements, and dealing with bureaucracy act as barriers to entry. “All those things play in and it becomes frustrating for them.” 

Some expect that those leaving the industry will be replaced by their offspring, but, ironically, in this regard the industry may be a victim of its own success.

“There are tradespeople who have worked in the industry all of their lives, but when it’s time for their children to choose a career, they send them to university,” says Mohanan. “It could be a product of our real estate prices in Vancouver. Children can now afford to do what they want and parents have the ability to support them through the process of finding themselves.”

Is Immigration a Labour Solution in the Construction Industry?

Mohanan believes that part of the solution lies in South America, where there are many who are eager to contribute to Canada’s concrete industry. Unfortunately the process of getting these individuals into the positions they’re suited for is a convoluted one, particularly with regards to skilled labour. 

“We’ve had some very good individuals coming in from South American countries,” says Mohanan. “They’re coming in with an engineering background from a university in Brazil, or Mexico City, or wherever it may be, but they’re starting off in the trades at the bottom rung.” 

While he acknowledges that some process is necessary in order to transfer qualifications between countries, Mohanan believes that more should be done in order to enable individuals to thrive. “Those in charge should start giving more value to their qualifications,” he says. 

Construction Market and Potential Recession

While there is much speculation about an impending recession, Mohanan sees the economy coming to a ‘stabilization point.’ Rather than cratering, he expects to see an easing of condo flipping and the current high pace of construction. The pandemic brought with it predictions of the shopping mall’s demise, but Mohanan has yet to see this, noting Syber Concrete’s participation in the construction of the new Richmond Center, which he describes as “massive, eight and a half acres of pure concrete.” 

In fact, Syber has been working on several large scale projects, the scope of which extend past short term economic forecasts. As Mohanan notes, a slight slowdown could actually help them by increasing the amount of available labour.

A Bright Future in Construction

“What happens in a recession?,” Mohanan asks rhetorically, answering that “infrastructure gets built.” He believes that a broad economic downtown could find people moving away from industries like coding and into construction. 

He urges young people to consider the opportunities the industry affords. 

“Some think that getting into trades means being a labourer, but there are different levels,” Mohanan explains. “Ticketed millwrights get a lot more compensation than unskilled labour.” Those with the right skillset may even find themselves leading major companies. 

“In all of the construction companies I’ve been in, the founders have been great tradespeople with great math skills, and they’ve built $50-100 million companies just because of that skill set alone.” 

Regardless of economic trends, Mohanan expects job security for those who are most deserving. 

“I think the cream will rise to the top,” he says. “Employees and companies that have proven their worth will still be around.” 

Cited Sources
Personal Communication with Santosh Mohanan