Construction companies say digital technology key to addressing labour shortages

Construction companies say digital technology key to addressing labour shortages

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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.

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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.

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“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 pandemic has intensified the sector’s need to adapt.

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Rothfischer added that 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.

Mary Van Buren, president of the Canadian Construction Association, noted that the cost of implementing new technologies has been a barrier for some companies in recent years.

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“Margins are slim in construction, especially for the small- and medium-sized contractors, making it increasingly difficult for them to adopt these types of innovations in their business operations,” Van Buren said in a press release.

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“This is why CCA continues to work with federal departments in an effort to modernize procurement processes that encourage innovation by supporting shared risk.”

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.

Other examples include robots that can lay bricks and tie steel reinforcement bars. He 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.

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