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Labour pains

A look at continued struggles with labour shortages and the path forward

January 16, 2024  By  Jack Burton

Photo: blas / Adobe Stock

Workforce shortages are currently a nation-wide concern, with the Canadian Survey on Business Conditions (CSBC), a quarterly report from Statistics Canada forecasting the expectations of businesses from across the country’s various sectors, showing that no matter the industry or province, staffing squeezes continue to be an issue.

“One of the questions we ask [in the CSBC] focuses on obstacles that businesses are going to face in the short term, whether that be costs, demand, supply chain, and obviously, labour,” said Chris Johnston, an analyst at Statistics Canada and co-author of the report. “Specifically, about one in every two business expects to face some labour-related obstacles, whether that’s workforce shortages, recruitment or retaining skilled employees.” 

Despite the country-wide consistency of these trends, the contributing factors and future outlooks specific to the construction and quarrying sectors’ relationship to labour proved to be notably more intricate and, in certain cases, severe. 

Surveying the labour landscape
Specifically, across the construction sector, the CSBC for the second quarter of 2023 revealed these issues to be more pronounced relative to other industries.


“The construction sector has slightly more challenges across the board,” said Shivani Sood, an analyst for Statistics Canada and co-author of the report. “The trend we saw was that, for the construction sector, these issues were a little bit higher than other industries.”

The survey found more than 40 per cent of employers across the construction industry expected recruiting skilled employees to be a notable obstacle over the next three-month period, with this figure placing the industry among the top five sectors grappling with this issue. 

While both the construction and the mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction sectors are facing similar personnel challenges, the labour realities present in each market have operational impacts notably distinct from one another. 

Professionals in the construction industry, according to the report, felt that the inability to expand their workforce was and would continue to negatively impact the deliverability of projects, both on-time and on-budget. For the mining, quarrying, oil & gas extraction sector, the impact of these shortages was more organizational than operational, creating difficulties in finding and retaining suitable talent.  

“Generally, what we saw was that the construction sector was more likely to indicate that the challenges they had were more related to their ability to grow and function, whereas the mining, quarrying, and oil & gas extraction sector indicated that their labour issues were much more direct, impacting their staff and the way that people work,” said Sood. 

Digging for answers
Securing the next generation of workers in these sectors is vital to not only keep operations moving forward, but for the continued financial health of the organizations and institutions that comprise these markets. 

Ryan Montpellier, executive director for the Mining Industry Human Resources (MIHR) Council, shared that personnel shortages in the quarrying and mining sector have wide-ranging bottom-line impacts, affecting organizational areas extending from people to projects. 

“It’s definitely hitting the bottom line. We’ve seen hiring costs increase, and companies are having to hire more people in HR, talent acquisition and recruitment,” Montpellier said. “What it’s also having an impact on is projects or expansions of existing quarries. All of those things are either being delayed or just cancelled outright, because it’s difficult to find the right people.”

As the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age, many markets stand to be affected by the volume of workers they will need to replace. Hiring trends in the quarrying and mining sector over the last several decades, however, have only exacerbated this big-picture issue.

“What makes mining and quarrying a bit unique is where we feel the labour market tightness, and it’s a little bit more than other sectors,” Montpellier said. “Our sector is old and aging: we hired a lot of baby boomers in the 80s and 90s, and mining didn’t have a whole lot of hiring in the 2000s and 2010s, so we’re now seeing this much older workforce leave, with not a lot in the middle.”

Montpellier sees the lack of access stemming from the often-rural nature of quarrying and mining as another contributing factor to the industry’s labour gaps. Given the remote locations of most mines and quarries, many projects do not have the privilege of using the urban centres that younger generations of workers are congregating to as viable talent pools. 

“A big part of it is that we’re seeing youth tending to migrate into large urban centers,” said Montpellier. “In rural Canada, we’re not building communities around mines the way we used to.”

With the majority of worksite locations across the mining and quarrying sector leaving organizations with a notably leaner selection of potential workers compared to other trades, the struggle to fill in the cracks left by retiring workers is only compounded.

“We don’t have mines where we have population density. Even when we’re talking about large-scale industrial projects such as large open pits, we’re still operating from a very small labour market compared to Canada’s urban areas such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver,” Montpellier said. “So, we’re already starting from a bit behind.”

The remote locations of mines and quarries also means the sector is rarely afforded the day-to-day exposure that other industries have as an opportunity to showcase their importance. Given the largely behind-the-scenes nature of this work, those new to the labour market lack the awareness of the sector’s importance that can be needed to view it as a viable career path.

“Another big thing is a lack of awareness,” said Montpellier. “People don’t see mining in their day-to-day while growing up the way they see construction, healthcare, policing or manufacturing. That lack of awareness of career opportunities is something unique to us, but also something we’re really trying to push through and raise awareness about.”

In good company
Visibility might be key in turning the tides on current labour woes, but it’s important to know what, exactly, employers should be making visible to their prospective workforce. For Julie Davis, vice president of people strategy for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), it’s a solid company culture that she sees as deserving of this spotlight.

The opportunity for potential employees to see an organization made up of engaged workers who want to be there can be a direct path for attracting the right talent, Davis believes, especially from younger generations traditionally underrepresented in these sectors.  

“A positive work environment, one that supports diversity, inclusion, good communication and employee growth and development – I think that those are all part of the evolving expectations of the younger workforce,” said Davis. “It really makes a difference. When someone has choices of where to work, they’re going to look at what kind of culture each company has.”

If a solid company culture can be the tiebreaker in a wide-open job market, then now more than ever, organizations should be looking at what needs to change in their own workplaces to create that environment. Though construction’s many sectors may be looking for the right people to bring in from the outside, it’s by looking within the organization where Davis sees the solution.

By approaching the construction market’s labour issues from a retention-minded standpoint, focused on cultivating an environment that provides its workers with a sense of value, organizations are not only more likely to keep talent, but have them become advocates for their employer and the supportive work environment they have built. 

“Always start with retention, which really does begin with that understanding of the opportunities that you have within your current culture,” said Davis. “That means having those conversations with your employees, and not just assuming that you know what’s going on.”

This open line of communication allows employees to feel supported and heard, while also providing employers with the insight necessary to address any gaps or areas of concern needed to build an engaged and motivated workforce. 

“You really need to get a sense of where those challenges are,” Davis said. “After that, it’s about really looking at how you can begin to build that culture.”

Though the variety of work that comprises the construction industry means that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to building the best company culture, Davis highlights leadership, communication and flexibility as values that all have significant potential to move the needle in attracting and retaining talent. 

“First of all, leadership is where culture begins, and I think communication is also key. Listening to employees is a strong, top factor: Are you in conversation with your employees? Are you listening and acting on their feedback?” said Davis. “I also think that after COVID, loud and clear, we’ve heard that creating some form of flexibility in schedules is really important for work-life balance, especially as we look at how to add diversity to our workforce.”

Working alongside AEM’s 1,000-plus members, Davis has noticed a pattern of answers that employees seek out over their first few years with a new organization: while the first year is about learning the role, the second year is more concerned with the employee learning about their company. By the time year three rolls around, employees are trying to learn what, in the long run, their company can do for them.

According to Davis, the average period a worker 35 years or younger stays at a role currently stands at 2.8 years. To solve the construction industry’s labour issue, she believes that employers need to become better at providing their workers with a solid answer to that three-year question.

 “If you don’t have something that you’re willing to give or invest in your employee, and you don’t have a culture that really speaks to growth and development for them, they’re going to move on and find that next opportunity for development – even if it’s not with you,” she said.

Attracting workers remains difficult even as infrastructure projects increase across the country. Photo: Creative Digital Art / Adobe Stock

Building the next generation
While there are changes employers can make across their operations and organizations to curb the current labour issues in the construction and quarrying sectors, a number of initiatives are also being introduced on the legislative level by governments across the country.

Ontario’s position as Canada’s largest sand and gravel producer, while also being in the starting stages of an infrastructure push on an unprecedented scale from the Ford administration, makes the labour issues of their roadbuilding and quarrying sectors more acute and demanding of immediate solutions.

“The biggest economic challenge facing Ontario is the labour shortage,” said Monte McNaughton, Ontario’s former Minister of Labour, Immigration and Training & Skills Development. “Construction is a big challenge right now, with about 75,000 jobs going unfilled. We need 100,000 construction workers over the next 10 years if we want to build projects on time and on budget, and to build the ambitious infrastructure plan we have as a government.”

The Ontario Ministry of Labour’s solution to this need for workers, not only in the construction industry, but across all skilled trades, has involved a robust campaign including career fairs and initiatives such as the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program and the Skills Development Fund; all of which share the goal of increasing the visibility of these potential career paths and access to the requisite training for them.

In the opinion of the Ministry, this hard work is definitely paying off. “We’re gaining a lot of momentum around the skilled trades, I hear it when I’m out meeting with parents and educators, and touring schools about this focus on the trades. We’ve really changed the conversation,” McNaughton said. 

From this changed conversation has come a promising shift regarding the future
of Ontario’s skilled trades workforce. This summer, the province showed a record year-over-year increase in apprenticeship registration numbers, recruiting more than 27,000 workers into apprenticeships, and among this a 30 per cent increase in apprenticeship registrations from female-identifying workers. 

The need for skilled workers across construction and other sectors may be a top priority for Ontario, but the Ministry’s approach to their trades push is concerned with more than just bringing the numbers up or getting shovels in the ground – for McNaughton, it’s also about providing the younger generation with an opportunity to do work that they’re proud of.

“I have a neighbour, he’s almost 60 years old, he’s [worked on] public and private sector infrastructure projects for his entire career. He literally loads up his three grandsons, and he’ll drive around and point to a project he once worked on and say, ‘I built that,’” said McNaughton. “I think that’s one of the best things that I hear every single day from people in the trades – that they’re damn proud of what they build.”

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