Looking to emerging populations to fill the employment gap

By Jon Waldman

The face of the construction industry is changing. As an aging population of workers retires, the need to fill vacancies becomes vital for continued success, and this often means looking to new and emerging populations to fill the employment gap.

As cited by the Canadian Construction Association (CCA) in their 2019 business case, titled The Value of Diversity and Inclusion in the Canadian Construction Industry, the populations that will assist in the need for on-site workers are women, Indigenous populations and new Canadians, three demographics that have traditionally shied away from the trade. 

Bringing in workers is only half the battle; retaining a new employee must be top of mind in a job economy that provides endless opportunities. However, all the free pizza lunches will only do so much if a staff member does not feel comfortable among their co-workers.

“Exclusionary behaviours work directly against the need to belong, and effectively make an employee or colleague feel like they don’t belong, aren’t welcome, and are not part of the group,” CCA wrote in the business case. “That has a direct impact on productivity, and revenue. Exclusion diminishes employee engagement – the mental and emotional connection employees feel toward their place of work – and that’s just bad for business.”

Not a simple solution

Creating an open environment can be tricky in an industry where tough and rugged are common characteristics. Whether looking to address behaviours on-site or seeking guidance in an off-site issue, workers need to feel they can come to their co-workers or leadership and not feel inferior to their peers. 

“It sounds cliche, but change begins at the top, the leadership level. Leaders have to set clear expectations for what respectful communication looks like in their business and then demonstrate those same values in their own behaviour.”

– Natalie Bell, People and Culture Consulting

“The biggest obstacles are the fear of retaliation or being perceived as ‘weak,’” said Natalie Bell, a People and Culture Consulting consultant and leadership coach. “In many male-dominated industries, that cultural norm typically values toughness over vulnerability. This results in employees being hesitant to speak up about it and be seen in a different light by their peers.”

The good news for business owners is that steering the ship to improved communication starts with having the right people on staff or brought in as consultants. These human resources or labour relations professionals are in place to assist business owners, directors and managers with the opportunity to create a proper, open environment. 

“HR has to assist leaders with working towards creating a culture where raising a concern is seen as a strength, and ensuring confidentiality in the process,” Bell said.

Language as a barriera

Two construction workers shaking hands

One of the issues that can be prevalent at the work site is off-colour language and risque topics. Unfortunately, this can be a major hurdle in a culture prone to dialogue. It’s not just the construction industry dealing with this concern. 

“The construction sector is not alone! There are a few other industries in the same predicament,” Bell said. 

She says that etiquette changes are more likely to occur if high-ranking employees encourage a clean-language environment and, just as importantly, live by example. 

“It sounds cliche, but change begins at the top, the leadership level,” Bell said. “Leaders have to set clear expectations for what respectful communication looks like in their business and then demonstrate those same values in their own behaviour.” 

Language change isn’t something that can happen like the flick of a switch, but proper training and enforcement are a good place to start. 

“Regular training and workshops that focus on a respectful workplace and how to communicate in a workplace setting can gradually shift the culture,” Bell said. “Establishing and enforcing policies against inappropriate behaviour firmly and consistently is also key.”

Policies can certainly help break any walls down, but creating a welcoming environment runs deeper than that.

“In any environment, people need to feel as though they can express themselves, and be themselves within the guidelines of a respectful workplace,” Bell said. “Creating a persona to come to work each day is stressful. People start to feel isolated or alienated, and over time that affects not only the individual’s wellbeing but the team dynamics and can impact work performance in a negative way.”

Giving every staff member the opportunity to shed that worker persona and feel like they can be true to themselves can only help your business, as CCA concludes in their business case.

“A thoughtful and practical cultural shift toward diversity and inclusion can drive bottom-line profit by sparking innovation, increasing productivity, reducing turnover, improving safety, increasing your market share and customer base, and enhancing your reputation,” CCA wrote.