KPMG: Construction tech can ease Canadian labour shortage

A Wingtra mapping drone lands on a quarry site
The use of drones, like this Wingtra mapping drone, are one method to alleviate labour shortages according to KPMG.

According to new research by KPMG, digital technology could help address the backlog of Canadian housing and infrastructure projects as well as the ongoing labour shortage.

A KPMG survey of 275 Canadian construction companies found the skilled labour shortage is affecting nearly 90 per cent of the industry. To address the shortage, digital technologies is a popular option to make the existing labour force more effective.

“Technology can help the construction industry address Canada’s housing and infrastructure challenges,” said Tom Rothfischer, Partner and National Industry Leader of Building, Construction and Real Estate for KPMG in Canada. “Digital tools, if used smartly, save time and money, reduce waste and improve worker safety and productivity. In short, they help get projects done on time or ahead of schedule and on budget.”

Rothfischer explained many technologies employed in the manufacturing sector can be deployed by the construction industry to increase productivity and reduce costs. For example, 3D printing technologies in manufacturing have been adapted to the construction industry to lay concrete and build complex steel shapes. Robots can lay bricks and tie steel reinforcement bars.

As well, drone-based surveying can help contractors quickly and accurately layout work, measure quantities and monitor progress. Building information modelling (BIM) allows project teams to collaborate more effectively to develop innovative solutions to optimize project cost and schedule. Digital twin technologies build on BIM to integrate real-time data from a built asset with its exact 3D virtual replica to test ‘what-if’ scenarios, including the impact of design changes, construction sequencing, weather disruptions and operational changes.

Slow to adopt

Canada’s construction industry has slowly adopted new digital technologies. However, the pandemic, combined with the intensifying labour shortage, has proven to be the catalyst the industry needed to rethink how they go about their business.

“We’re seeing a definite recalibration taking place in the construction sector,” Rothfischer said. “While many are still just at the beginning of their digital build, leaders see the power of technology to reshape the way they work and plan to invest heavily in the coming years. But having the technology is only half the battle. The real advantage will come to those firms who effectively integrate it into their operations – from the back office to the construction site.”

KPMG survey findings

  • 73 per cent believe Canada’s construction industry lags other countries in digital technology adoption
  • 67 per cent say the impacts of the pandemic prompted investment in technology
  • 86 per cent agreed that disruptive technologies can generate savings and efficiency
  • 85 per cent believe disruptive technologies could make their companies more competitive
  • About 80 per cent say their teams are excited and supportive of new technologies and approaches
  • 46 per cent plan to spend more than 11 per cent of their corporate operating budget on tech and digital transformation

“Leading firms are already adopting technology to improve productivity and project management, safety on worksites, and decision-making,” said Mary Van Buren, President of the Canadian Construction Association (CCA).

“There is a cost however to investing in digitization that isn’t necessarily shared among all parties in the procurement process. 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. This is why CCA continues to work with federal departments in an effort to modernize procurement processes that encourage innovation by supporting shared risk.”

A double whammy

The KPMG survey found the Canadian construction industry is grappling with a double whammy of unprecedented increased in demand for housing and infrastructure projects, and a severe labour shortage.

To address this, almost all contractors are examining ways to alleviate current labour constraints to meet demands.

“The efficient allocation of trades is one of the industry’s most-pressing challenges and opportunities,” says Jordan Thomson, Senior Manager, Infrastructure Advisory, KPMG in Canada. “Many companies are deploying or planning to deploy digital tools to better improve efficiency on site and do more with less.”

Yet, as companies embrace technologies, the composition of the workforce will also need to undergo change to incorporate new roles, such as software engineers, BIM designers, data analysts and drone operators into the project team. For example, drones are increasingly used for planning and design, site analysis, topographic mapping, land surveys, real-time monitoring and on-site worker safety.

“With so many construction projects on the horizon, the only way companies will be able to compete, and finish the job on time and within budget is by digitizing and modernizing their operations and ensuring they fully harness the potential of digital technologies,” Thomson said.