Smarten up: tech training can help alleviate a labour shortage

heavy equipment training
By Jeff Winke

The scene: A busy mid-size construction contractor office where the owner-operator plops into his desk chair while thinking that he and his incredible crew need relief … they need help. 

“I’m gonna close my eyes for a minute,” he promises, and dozes into a familiar dream where he’s sifting through a stack of resumes of experienced, qualified workers all eager to work for him. He smiles contentedly until he hears, “Are you sleeping? We need your help!” 

It is a scary world out there. Construction contractors know that in spades. They struggle with tight deadlines,, better productivity, lower costs, more time in a day and that ominous need for a competent workforce.

An insufficient workforce

The Associated General Contractors of America recently released a study of construction firms. A few key statistics included in their Workforce Shortage Report explains that eight out of 10 construction firms cannot find sufficient qualified employees. As well, 19 per cent are investing in labour-saving equipment and tools that require smarter workers.

Furthermore, 82 per cent believe that it will be more difficult to find qualified workers over the next 12 months.

“As the US-based construction workforce becomes increasingly thinly spread,” the AGC report stated, “owners and managers of construction firms will be required to approach the problem of labour shortages creatively, in order to convert these problems into opportunities. A key to overcoming the labour shortage, in the construction industry, is to invest in current employees to increase their skills, knowledge and abilities, as well as to support existing employees with labour-saving tools and equipment.”

  • Investing in existing employees has definite advantages, when compared to hiring new employees, including:
  • Current employees know how the company operates and manages its project sites. 
  • Current employees are a known entity. Managers know their strengths and weaknesses and may be better able to manage and lead them than new hires.
  • With new employees, there are start-up administrative costs, equipment and safety training and general acclimation to new managers, co-workers and procedures. 
  • Current employees pose less risk. Studies have confirmed higher injury rates among workers who have been on the job for less than a year. Also, consider that hiring new employees with less experience and then moving them quickly into the field to meet demands may create greater risk.

Clearly, on-going skills and technology training of existing employees can prove to be critical, not only for retention, but the success of the company.

“The penalty for not keeping current with technology is longer project timelines,” said Ron Oberlander, vice president of global professional services for Topcon Positioning Group. “Successful training focuses on the work process which yields greater efficiencies and better results.”

With the training emphasis on workflow, employees can develop a broader perspective on construction projects and all that goes into the tasks that culminate in their completion. The emphasis on work processes demonstrates a respect for the intelligence of employees and invites them to think in a partner role, which can strengthen their commitment to the job and the company.

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“I’ve completed a couple of training programs conducted by Topcon and I am scheduled for another in the next six months,” said John Poirier, project manager with Warman Excavating & Trenching Ltd., based in Waldheim, Saskatchewan. “It is well worth the time; and the cost is inconsequential compared to what I learn. I’m getting trained by unbelievable trainers — seasoned experts with 20 to 30 years of experience with the company. They know the products, the market and understand the workflow.”


Constant evolution

Oberlander noted that technology used on a jobsite is frequently changing. 

“When we host attendees — distributors and end users — at our training sessions, we focus on workflows and how the key features of our products and systems improve productivity and efficiency,” Oberlander said.

With the strong job economy today, it is sometimes difficult to find talent to fill open positions. A benefit of training and the power of easy-to-use technology means that construction contractors can hire less-skilled talent. They can either send them to instructor-led courses or put them through e-learning-based training.  Either way, the knowledge and skills gap can be bridged.

Since every construction project is unique, and may require different technology and solutions, it is important that workers at all experience levels engage in training regularly to remain up to date.

“Think about the advances in consumer technology … such as the Apple iPhone,” Oberlander said. “The innovations and high-powered processors that upgrade the iPhone annually are being used in construction equipment. Look at the displays and systems inside of a new excavator, dozer or other heavy equipment, which now make them more productive to run and service; and in turn, makes the contractor more efficient and profitable.”  

Hardwired tech

Oberlander added GPS machine control has evolved in the last 20 years from little adoption of machine automation to a market where some machine manufacturers are integrating machine control technology direct from the technology-provider’s factory floor into their machines or even wiring heavy equipment so they are capable of later adding aftermarket systems. 

As well, some government agencies are even specifying that contractors working on their projects must employ GPS machine control on their equipment.

An example of the interest and commitment to training occurring in the construction industry, is what Topcon Positioning Systems is currently doing. The company is investing by building state-of-the-art training facilities in the United States, Italy and Japan. 

The new six-acre training facility in the United States is being constructed at the Topcon campus in Livermore, California and will cover training for construction, geo positioning and paving. Vertical construction and layout training will include a half-built building for real-world demonstrations.

As well, two state-of-the-art classrooms will be included. The training facilities in Italy and Japan are being built to the same parameters.

“Since we focus heavily on workflow training, our training will mimic live applications that take place at a typical construction site,” Oberlander said.

“The main difference is we can focus on the application and training without distractions of a contractor’s live jobsite. We always offer on-location training at the contractor’s jobsite or home office, but we believe that it is important to establish a baseline of education with a contained workflow at our training centre.”

topcon training

Yield greater efficiency

Construction contractors struggle with the need to keep up to date on the latest technology and trends that make their projects more efficient, while attracting and retaining a full workforce in a tight labour market.

The answers may be found in training both existing employees and new inexperienced workers on labour-saving technologies with a focus on the work process which yields greater efficiencies and better results.

“There is 100 per cent benefit to training; otherwise you’re looking at your technology being the world’s most expensive paperweight,” Poirier said. 

“Training gave me knowledge and confidence to feel comfortable with the technology. I recently set up a new excavator using a system I had mounted on a different machine. It works great and would have cost me $42,000 to have someone come in and set up and initialize the GPS system on the excavator — all work I did myself.”

Clearly training can benefit contractors. It can add knowledge, skills and the confidence to succeed.