Construction labour challenges: When you dig into the story, you see its complications

eletrician at job
Specialization or multi-tasking: Which is best? This is just one of the complex issues affecting the constriction industry.

Yesterday, I attended a conference largely attended by representatives of unionized contractors and craft unions. This is the world of “big construction” — mega transit and infrastructure projects, and high-rise residential condominiums. These guys aren’t renovating bathrooms in single family homes.

Obviously, the perspectives here will be different if you attend a merit-based contractors association gathering (in the US that would be the Associated Builders and Contractors, in Canada, the word “Merit” is associated with relevant provincial associations).

Mixing the two perspectives can be like pouring oil on water, where emotions and legal and political conflicts become an ongoing story. (In Ontario, organized labour has the ear and support of the current government — the provincial labour minister spoke to the gathering and confirmed that the government will be introducing a “fair wage” requirement for government projects — designed to allow the better-paid unionized contractors a degree of protection from non-union competitors.)

I learned many years ago that when there are complex and contentious issues, there is more than one right side and truth, and in this discussion, I’ll outline some of the intriguing and complex issues affecting the industry.

Skilled trades develop their expertise through on-the-job training (apprenticeship). There is a shortage of skilled workers. Are the unions the cause of this shortage?

The unionized contractors and owners at this conference made the very telling point that their organizations shoulder the bulk of the apprenticeship volume/burden. The data suggests that 83 per cent of unionized businesses have at least one apprentice, while the number is much lower (49 per cent) for non-union organizations — and the gap is increasing.

There are some problems with this data, namely that the non-union firms tend to be smaller and thus less likely to have the ability to hold an apprentice. However, there is another issue — relating to career stability. Since trades are needed more on an on and off-basis, it is hard for a non-union firm to maintain someone for the full term of an apprenticeship. In the union sector, the apprentice doesn’t work for a single employer, so can be relocated as required over the many years to learn the trade.

The unions are fighting to preserve “scope of work” to protect their jobs. Or they are truly developing into effective, efficient and practical trades providers?

Here you can listen to some wonderfully complex arguments. An electrician made the observation that the union shot itself in the foot when, faced with an abundance of work some years ago, its members got lazy, allowing labourers to take on some jobs traditionally done by the union — grunt work, for example, like digging trenches for conduit.

This has led to modern jurisdictional disputes as in some cases the electricians wish to reassert their traditional roles.  In one case, the union rep said, the electrical workers did this and the contractor was surprised that productivity actually increased and costs were lower. There were fewer errors and there was real pride in the craftsmanship by the electrical workers.

If you look at the story from the perspective of the merit contractor, it is quite different, of course. These contractors advocate multi-discipline/cross task training so that the workers can do useful tasks regardless of workflow ebbs and flows. With diverse skills, there are fewer delays and higher work satisfaction.

There’s a shortage of skilled trades. (Or) there is a shortage, but the bottleneck is caused by forces that may be different from your expectations.

The unionized representatives were remarking about the volume of young people seeking apprenticeships as electricians, compared to masons (bricklayers). The pay for both trades is comparable, but there were lineups of 400 people for a few spots for the electrical trades, while the masonry trades college has spots available on short notice.

Why do people want to lay conduit rather than brick? One person at the table made the remark: “The girls seem to like the electricians more” and I thought, oh for the status issue — and mix a bit of sex into the story, and you have an answer that defies expectations. (We’ll leave out the fact that women rather than men continue to be attracted to the trades.)

Can more be done to encourage people who are otherwise disadvantaged to take up trades careers?

There are various initiatives such as Helmets to Hardhats which redeploy veterans from the Canadian and US military to the skilled trades, and in some areas, “community benefits” programs (MBWE/affirmative action initiatives) designed to create opportunities for disadvantaged individuals.  These projects appear to have value, but at some point, there is a tipping point where they become manipulation exercises and create artificial and expensive bureaucracies.

If you want me to provide a final answer or definitive conclusion here, you’ll be disappointed. I won’t shout from the roof that the Merit/non-union approach is right, nor will I blindly advocate for the unions.  When you dig into the arguments of each side, you can see some good points, and plenty of contradictions. These conflicts, in part, explain why the construction industry is so dynamic. The truth, in this situation, is both simple and complex.


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