Constructing Through COVID-19

Thus far, the construction industry has largely been spared from the economic impacts of COVID-19. While complying with safety measures put in place to battle the pandemic have not made life easy on construction sites, efforts to meet the challenge may modernize the industry long-term. In fact, this evolution, coupled with the industry’s relative stability, may help companies recruit talent to fill roles from management through labour.

Relative Stability

“So much of construction is large projects,” says Goldbeck president Henry Goldbeck. “It’s planned and financed well in advance and takes years to complete. This structural momentum has carried the industry through COVID with little effect so far.”

Like building construction, road construction should remain stable, at least in the near future. Road construction, being largely publicly financed, could in fact see a boost as a result of economic stimulus measures.

Recruiting for Construction

While construction has been spared the worst of the economic turmoil, there has been a slight downturn, which has made for the availability of good management candidates.

“That little effect has helped somewhat in terms of availability of candidates for the most in-demand construction management positions, such as project managers, estimators and site supers,” says Goldbeck.

The stability of the industry allows for recruitment efforts to position it as a safe harbour in a time of storm.

“In times of uncertainty, the construction trades offer something that’s hard to find these days: a pandemic-proof career,” reads an op-ed by Paul De Jong.1

Another company has offered to train workers, hoping to entice them with outdoor work, contrasting that to the indoor isolation that defines this period for many.

Safety Compliance and Procedural Constraints

Deemed essential, and rightfully so, many in the construction industry have worked on-site even as others work remotely. The price of this is a slate of rigorous safety protocols, which has complicated workflow, often stretching timelines and increasing budgets.

A hydroelectric project in Newfoundland could see it’s cost increase by $400M.2 Physical distancing measures mean that only 300 workers can be present on site at any given time, down from 500 in early March. Workers won’t be able to come and go from the site, with full scale shift changes every two weeks being the new protocol.

In British Columbia, complaints from workers about non-compliance with safety protocols on construction sites has led the BC Building Trades Council to call for a public inquiry. Workers complain of inadequate washrooms, a lack of running water, shared tools and physical distancing, among other things.

“The pandemic has exposed a culture of non-compliance in certain segments of our industry,” said Andrew Mercier, executive director of BCBTC, in a statement.3

Technology in Construction

A trend across industries is that of accelerated change as a result of COVID-19. Emergent technology has been adopted at a quicker rate as office workers disperse to their homes and, while construction can’t eliminate the need for physical presence at construction sites, many tasks can be done remotely.

“Among many other hands-on sectors, builders, electricians and plumbers can’t very well ply their trades over Zoom. But the digital technology could still play a pivotal part in getting the construction industry back on its feet.”4

As we’ve covered on this site in the past, the increased utilization of technology will not only move construction into the 21st century, but will have the added benefit of helping to attract technologically-inclined young minds to the industry. Cloud-based labour tracking, field reporting and project management systems, along with video conferencing and virtual site tours, are proving useful during COVID-19. These and other technologies will create the kind of work environment expected by the digital natives now entering the workforce.

“There will be advances in time-saving, off-site construction innovation which will, in turn, require more innovative hoisting and elevating technologies,” writes Richard Lyall for the Toronto Sun. “The pace of adjustment during the COVID pandemic has been relentless. So much has been done to date and so much remains. This crisis will accelerate changes and reforms in ways not considered possible just a few months ago.”5

The Future of Construction

The construction industry is indeed essential, both in the legal and practical sense of the word. It has provided an important service and a stabilizing presence as society grapples with this unforeseen situation. The industry remains robust, due in part to the long term nature of large projects, and there are hopes that this resiliency will continue.

“The real test for the industry will be the numbers of new permits being issued in the 2nd-4th quarters of this year,” says Goldbeck.

Cited Sources
1 “Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Why the Construction Trades Are the Pandemic-Proof Career Choice –” Daily Commercial News, May 14, 2020.
2 “Muskrat Falls Costs Could Climb by $400 Million as Construction Gets Back on Track | CBC News.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, May 26, 2020.
3 Chan, Kenneth. “Urbanized.” Calls for public inquiry into BC construction industry’s health safety measures. Daily Hive, May 19, 2020.
4 Sawers, Paul. “How AI and Remote Collaboration Tools Could Help the Construction Industry Get Back to Work.” VentureBeat. VentureBeat, May 20, 2020.
5 Lyall, Richard. “RESCON: Construction Pivoted Rapidly during the COVID-19 Crisis.” Toronto Sun, May 22, 2020.