Employers are having a hard time finding people – here’s what some Saskatchewan heavy construction contractors are facing

By Martin Charlton Communications

Some heavy construction employers in Saskatchewan are sharing what they are trying in order to find and retain workers to keep their businesses and the industry strong.

A lack of experience isn’t a barrier for someone interested in a job in heavy construction. Employers are willing to train, seeing it as an investment to secure the employees they need.

“We have people out here who have never been in a rock truck,” said Kevin Arneson of Allan Construction. “We’ll spend as many days as we need to with them to train them up, so we get them comfortable with that piece of equipment. We hope that they stay around and become a valuable employee for us.”

Even with that approach and the accommodations the business can make – around scheduling and travel, for example – Arneson has found it difficult to retain employees. He’s onboarded many this year, but they aren’t working out.

“It’s been probably one of the worst years in history,” said Arneson, who said the company promotes its jobs at career fairs, through local hiring events and online on recruitment websites.

Carmen Duncan will hire local teenagers to work in his shop until they are older to begin learning to operate the equipment.

He has been working full-time in the industry since he was 15 years old. He started even earlier working for his dad, Cameron Duncan, in the family business along with his brothers, picking rocks and helping where they could.

Over the years, I’ve learned to hire less and less based on experience. I’m not saying that experience doesn’t matter, but I really look for some key characteristics in people.”

– Darcy Nemanishen

To him, attitude is more important than experience. He wants employees who are interested in learning.

“I want to know they can retain knowledge and build on that knowledge,” said Duncan, who is the second-generation owner of C. Duncan Construction, based in Spy Hill. “Some people only want to learn so much and then carry on with life, but as my dad always said, ‘If you’re not learning something new every day, you’re dying.’”

Then, he needs to make sure they are committed to working long hours for 11 to 13 days at a stretch. They need to be comfortable not returning home every night as projects take them almost anywhere in the province.

One of Darcy Nemanishen’s newest employees came to him with lots of experience – in medicine – but it was his character that got him the job.  

Suhyb had been a physician in Ukraine. Nemanishen met Suhyb and his wife, Oksana, to discuss what work opportunities he could provide.

“To be honest, I was a little bit intimidated when I saw their resumés,” said Nemanishen, recognizing the extensive training the couple had – him in psychotherapy and her in laboratory medicine.

To Carmen Duncan, attitude is more important than experience. He wants employees who are interested in learning.

Suhyb had joined the fight in the war against Russia, but the couple left Ukraine when the situation in Kharkov, where they lived, became treacherous for Oksana, and Suhyb’s health weakened. They travelled for weeks through Poland finally to Canada where the Sunflower Network helped them settle in Martensville, where Nemanishen lives.

Nemanishen connected with Suhyb had joined the fight in the war against Russia through the Sunflower Network, a group of Saskatchewan people dedicated to helping Ukrainians settle in the province. It isn’t just Nemanishen who has been working with groups formed to help Ukrainians looking for a new start in Canada.

The SHCA has been working with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Employer Services and others connecting Ukrainian immigrants to companies for employment opportunities.  

SHCA has worked with Andrii Stakhov, who is employment liaison with the Saskatchewan Provincial Council of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. It has an employment form on its website where employers can post jobs to support those displaced by the war in Ukraine. Then, Stakhov can identify what kind of employment is most suitable for each job candidate, depending on their backgrounds and credentials, including their ability to speak English.

Shantel Lipp, president of SHCA, says many members have been eager to work with groups such as the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and the Sunflower Network.

I’ve got a philosophy that when you find a good person, you find a spot for them, whether you have one or not.”

– Darcy Nemanishen

“The association believes, like many of our members, that if you can help someone in need, you should,” said Lipp, who encourages all members to fill out an employment form. “We believe in giving these folks, who are new to our great province, an opportunity to provide for their families.”

Looking beyond direct experience

Nemanishen believes in looking at an employees’ character when making hiring decisions.

“Over the years, I’ve learned to hire less and less based on experience,” said Nemanishen. “I’m not saying that experience doesn’t matter, but I really look for some key characteristics in people.”

He wants to hire people like Suhyb, who are humble, smart and
emotionally intelligent.

“Those are three of my top things. If you’ve got somebody who’s got those qualities, whether or not they have a lot of experience on a grader or a scraper or a dozer, there is a lot of that stuff you can teach to the right people,” said Nemanishen. “I’ve got a philosophy that when you find a good person, you find a spot for them, whether you have one or not.”

Those who make the cut can expect to make a good living. Recently, the SHCA explained to the City of Regina how employees of the industry are compensated. This was in response to the city considering attaching a fair wage policy to its procurement policy, a proposal that was
defeated by council.

Heavy construction employers are known to be one of the better paying employers in the province – statistically second only to the mining sector. The average hourly compensation for the heavy civil construction industry in 2021 was $39.84. This is 11.4 per cent above the provincial all-industry average and ranks seventh among 20 major industries in the province.

The industry compensates employees based on their skill, training, type of work and years in the position in balance with what the market will bear. Many employers provide benefits such as medical, dental, health spending accounts, company vehicles and additional training for their employees as part of their employment.

Getting one’s boot in the door can be the start of a solid career. Nemanishen explains how he trains new hires.

“We very much operate with a crawl, walk, run mentality here,”
said Nemanishen.

First, the new hire drives around with someone experienced to get used to being on a job site.

“There’s a lot of moving parts on sites. We’re driving huge, heavy, fast pieces of equipment and we love that. But if you’re not in the loop, it can be dangerous,” he said. “I’ve often said anybody can drive a piece of equipment from point A to point B. It’s knowing what to do with it or what not to do with it.”

The next step is getting the new employee in that equipment alongside an experienced operator. Then, they can begin to operate it with someone more experienced monitoring them.

“Depending on the feedback I get from my operator, that can last anywhere from a couple hours to several days. It just depends how fast people are catching on.”

That experience is coupled with training materials developed by the company. Safety is Nemanishen’s priority. His company has not had any serious injuries or deaths on its job sites in its 60-plus years. He intends to continue
that streak.

“I worked really hard to develop more of a structured training program,” said Nemanishen. “I’ve made my own manuals and my own exams, so there’s a lot more in-depth and company-specific information when it comes to training.”

Duncan believes a lot of younger people want to incorporate technology into their jobs. Anyone looking at how technology can intersect with operating heavy equipment might want to see Duncan’s equipment. It includes GPS technology that allows operators to monitor a 3D image of the road they are building as it is being constructed.

Jobs in heavy construction aren’t just about operating equipment. There is traffic accommodation, human resources, health and safety policy development, accounting and more. Those roles also require an employee to understand the industry while developing different knowledge and skills needed by
the business.

The great thing about our industry is that we are all contractors who are bidding on the same jobs, but when the job is done, we are all still friends, ready to sit down and have a beer and a laugh.”

– carmen duncan

Nemanishen explains his cousin, Jason, started out in the family business at about the same age he did. Jason now focusses on the accounting after getting his post-secondary education, but he too has experience operating equipment.

Even in a family business, Nemanishen says everyone working for the company needs to become qualified for their roles.

“My dad and his two brothers were really born into it. It was just assumed that they would kind of join the company my grandpa and grandma started, and they did. And all three of them are still involved,” he said. “My two uncles are operators and my dad did my job and now I’ve really taken over most of it.”

Hiring family because they are family won’t keep a company strong, he says. Employees need to see that their co-workers – even those who are part of the owner’s family – are committed to working hard and doing quality work. Otherwise, he says, the business can implode.

Duncan’s company has employed his wife and daughters at various times in its history. Five years ago, when his dad retired, Duncan bought him out to become the second-generation owner. His wife, Sherry-Lee, retired from nursing to now oversee the company’s human resources, including health and safety.

Their three daughters – Marissa, Kaylee and Zoe – have all worked for the company doing everything from operating equipment to developing health and safety policy. One of his sons-in-law is an employee while another is the son of a different  long-time
family-owned road building company from
the area – DJ Miller and Sons of Langenburg.

Knowing who is attracted to working in the industry has reinforced for Duncan what he appreciates about being part of it.

“The great thing about our industry is that we are all contractors who are bidding on the same jobs, but when the job is done, we are all still friends, ready to sit down and have a beer and a laugh,” he said.

As for finding the next great employee, Nemanishen says you never know who will be the one to work out.

“I still have yet to find the magic formula for hiring,” he said. “I know I’ve got some rules that I apply – and that helps – but when I look at some of the people we hired, when they walked in the office, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what are we doing?’

“And they’ve turned out to be amazing.”