To attract a generation that grew up with cellphones and iPads, the construction industry goes high-tech

When Vlad Rotaru leaves the office trailer at the Toronto construction site where he works, the most important tool he carries — apart from the hard hat and safety vest he wears — is his smartphone.

The 22-year-old received his mechanical engineering degree in April from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, recently rebranded  the Ontario Tech University, and is now a mechanical-electrical-plumbing co-ordinator for Deltera.

He's located on a project called The Well, a residential and commercial development in Toronto's downtown core, one of the biggest job sites in Canada.

The technology on Rotaru's cellphone makes his line of work "just all around less tedious," he says.

His employer is one of growing number of construction companies to use web and mobile software applications to connect the back office to the construction site, collapsing data from armloads of technical drawings and countless spreadsheets and emails into something that fits in a back pocket.

That saves a lot of time and effort, he says. "You don't have to climb up six levels of stairs to get a drawing."

I think having those technologies will definitely appeal to young people and probably will help in the recruitment. — Shaun Thorson, CEO Skills/Compétences Canada

Tech tools are not only a way of saving time — and therefore money — they're a critical part of attracting and keeping generation Z and millennial workers who have grown up expecting the efficiency afforded them by their iPads and smartphones. That's especially vital for the trades, which are working hard to overcome a labour shortage that stems in part from a cultural bias that pushes young people toward university and office work.

"We have this perception that these are second-tier occupations, and they're definitely not," said Shaun Thorson, CEO of Skills/Compétences Canada, a non-profit that promotes careers in skilled trades and technology. 

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Positioning industries like construction as more cutting-edge than people imagine could help overcome some of that perception problem, he said. "I think having those technologies will definitely appeal to young people and probably will help in the recruitment. I think it also demonstrates … that there are a lot of different skill sets involved in these occupations, and they are complex." 

The tool Deltera uses is called Procore, which in addition to managing all the data and plans associated with anything from a home renovation to a sky-high condo development, also connects all contractors, subcontractors and trades who work on a project. That simplifies communication and helps avoid costly do-overs when work is done wrong simply because of a breakdown in communication.

Kylie Campbell, Deltera's project manager for The Well, who works primarily off site, says there are six site superintendents working on the Deltera part of the development, all logging information into Procore. "It allows us to have a more detailed, accurate report as to what's happening on site daily."

"If anyone from head offices wants to know what's happened on site that day, they don't have to make the phone call and have the site superintendents read their handwriting from their black pocket books anymore. They can go right into the system and pull up all the man hours, daily events, the concrete deliveries, the safety issues — anything they want to report on, they can do that through Procore."

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The same goes for every person working on a project. A painter, for example, is much less likely to apply the wrong colour as a result of consulting an outdated work order. Instead, plans are updated dynamically, eliminating the need for a lot of time-consuming email updates.

Anis Khoury, an enterprise solutions engineer for Procore who previously worked in construction, said the mobile app makes all those tools handy, even if you're "on the roof of a 60-storey building."

"And that all syncs as soon as you're back within Wi-Fi."

Himself a millennial, Khoury said he's seen the industry become more willing to adopt tech tools in the past five or six years. He attributes that in part to the fact that millennials are now more established in the field.

They grew up with an iPhone in their hand, so this is easy for them to use. — Anis Khoury, Procore enterprise solutions engineer

"If you have someone coming out of university today who's applying for a job, and you're telling them, 'You're going to have to manage 300 quality issues on this project manually with email and spreadsheets,' or that you'll give them something like Procore where you can walk around, take photos, it's intuitive, it's easy to use, has reminders, actionable items, what do you think their reaction's going to be?"

"They grew up with an iPhone in their hand, so this is easy for them to use."

Tech tools can help construction shake off an image of being a legacy industry, and instead "It's going to feel like an advanced industry," he said.

The field was arguably a little overdue for an efficiency upgrade. 

Playing catch-up

"The construction sector has lagged in productivity," said Brendon Bernard, economist for job site Indeed Canada. That's in part because it wasn't as easy to apply high-tech solutions to the field, unlike some others such as manufacturing, he said. For a time that made it harder to raise wages because the industry wasn't getting more profitable.

According to Statistics Canada's most recent job vacancy and wage survey, the construction industry had 42,690 job vacancies in the second quarter of this year, a vacancy rate of 4.1 per cent. That's higher than the national average across all industries of 3.5 per cent.

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That puts the onus on the industry to do more to attract young professionals such as Ariana Rodriguez, a senior co-ordinator for quality control at Deltera, who is also working on The Well.

"The younger generation tend to like to use their phone for everything, technology for everything. They may think that construction is old school, like you only use concrete or rebar." 

If they knew the industry is adapting these high-tech tools, they'd be more likely to pursue construction careers as she has, said Rodriguez.

Although these construction jobs aren't readily available everywhere in the country — most notably in the resource-dependent provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, which are still climbing out of recession — Rodriguez said she feels there are lots of opportunities for tech-savvy young people in construction who are willing to go where the work is.

'On the money'

In fact, after completing a civil engineering degree and working for a year in her home country, Venezuela, she came to Toronto and completed graduate certificates in construction management and project management. "Here in Toronto, the demand for construction is pretty high."

"Knowing how to use technology in the right way on a construction site is really on the money because not a lot of people know how to use it."

Michael Wilson/CBC

Jas Saraw, vice-president in charge of Procore's Canadian operations, said, "We have to look at construction as more of a STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] field moving forward."

That's an important part of addressing the skills shortages he hears about from clients.

"It's almost every meeting or every other meeting, we'll hear something about the fact that it's a competitive marketplace for talent today," he said.

"Younger folks in the industry, millennials, will go to a company that has forward-looking technology, rather than go to a laggard in the industry that isn't really thinking about the future."

The trick is making sure they're aware of the industry, said Thorson of Skills/Compétences Canada.

"I think if we let students discover these occupations and give them opportunities to participate in them, put materials and tools in their hands, which would be some of the traditional tools as well as the new tools that are being used, and then we'll see a larger uptake in students wanting to pursue that right when they leave high school."