There is no end in sight to the labour shortage, and companies across many sectors are feeling the crunch.
According to Statistics Canada, the overall job vacancy rate stands at 5.4%, and rates are particularly high in truck transportation (8%) and construction (6.6%).1 In the latest Canadian Survey on Business Conditions by Statistics Canada, nearly two in five businesses (39.7%) expected obstacles related to recruiting and retaining skilled employees over the next three months. Manufacturing was among the top sectors facing such challenges (49.8%).2
Since there’s no quick fix to the ongoing labour problem, businesses must lean into long-term solutions – and a key one is technology. From bricklaying robots to remotely operated vehicles, technology can help companies in manufacturing, construction and logistics/transportation boost productivity, reduce costs and attract a new crop of recruits.
Here’s a look at some exciting technologies that can help bridge the talent gap.
While the construction industry has historically been slow to adopt automation technologies, that’s changing. Robotics have great potential to take over repetitive, physically demanding jobs that can slow workers down, or even injure them.3
In the U.S., Advanced Construction Robotics has developed TyBOT, which takes care of the “repetitive, backbreaking task of tying rebar,” the steel bars used to reinforce concrete together where they intersect. TyBOT can self-locate and tie more than 1,100 intersections per hour, or 36,000 in a single work week, which the company says is equivalent to what four to six workers can accomplish.4
FBR, an Australian company dealing in robotic construction, has developed a robotic brick-laying machine called Hadrian X. The company says humans have been laying bricks in the same way for the past 6,000 years. But with its technology, FBR says bricklaying can be done with speed and accuracy in outdoor environments, with less waste and improved site safety.
3D printing also holds a lot of promise in construction. This emerging technology can be used to manufacture specific elements or entire buildings by printing materials such as concrete, polymer or metal, layer by layer.5
3D printing is just starting to be used in Canada, with Kingston, Ont.-based nidus3D printing the country’s first multifamily apartment building in Leamington, Ont. last year. The company is now building two large warehouses near Kingston, which are set to become Canada’s first 3D-printed buildings permitted for commercial use. Instead of the dozen or so workers that would typically be needed on site, there will be just a few people using mobile devices to operate a large 3D printing machine.6
Experts say 3D printing could revolutionize the industry by reducing the number of people needed onsite, which in turn improves safety. The technology can also increase productivity since work can continue outside of typical hours. 7
But that’s not to say workers will be replaced wholesale. In fact, there will be increased demand for people with the skills and knowledge to use new technologies, which presents an opportunity to attract younger, more tech-savvy workers to the construction sector.8
Remote and Autonomous Operating
Remote work isn’t just for employees who clack away on their keyboards. Thanks to a Silicon Valley company called Phantom Auto, logistics companies can enable employees to remotely monitor, assist and operate unmanned vehicles (such as forklifts and trucks) from thousands of miles away.
The software aims to help logistics companies create a larger labour pool, including employees who might not otherwise be able to do on-site logistics work, for instance, if they have a disability that precludes them from such work. The technology can also be a way to attract employees, as logistics jobs typically involve long hours and commutes, and require physical exertion.9
In construction, remote and autonomous vehicles are gaining acceptance as the technology advances. Caterpillar, for example, has a range of remote-controlled and autonomous solutions under its Cat Command product suite. The technology lets users run equipment, such as dozers and excavators, from a remote location offsite or onsite.10
Palo Alto, Calif.-based Teleo has developed technology to enable remote, semi-autonomous operations of heavy construction equipment. Any make and model can be retrofitted with the technology.
Teleo says the technology can help with the labour problem by making the operator’s job more comfortable, which could help attract more people to the industry. It also helps with productivity, as operators can put a machine into autonomous mode while remotely operating a second machine.11
Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR)
In manufacturing, augmented reality (which combines the digital world with real elements) and virtual reality (a computer-generated simulation) can be used to improve worker productivity through immersive on-the-job training. For example, AR smart glasses that project video, graphics and text can visually guide a worker through assembly or maintenance tasks.12
These technologies are also a great way to attract talent. In the U.S., the National Association of Manufacturers’ annual “Creators Wanted” campaign has used 3D VR tours featuring several manufacturing facilities to change misconceptions about the industry.13 At an in-person event last year, students could take part in VR paint and assembly training.14
It looks as though businesses are keen to embrace alternate worlds. In a survey of operational leaders, 80% of respondents agreed AR will help their organization gain a strategic/competitive edge. They cited benefits such as increased employee productivity (43%), remote connectivity/collaboration (26%), and accelerated training (32%) – all of which can help alleviate the labour shortage.15
Technology may not solve all labour woes, but it sure can help. And with the labour shortage likely to continue for many years to come, it’s worth a closer look.
1 Statistics Canada, “Job vacancies, payroll employees, job vacancy rate, and average offered hourly wage by industry sub-sector, quarterly, unadjusted for seasonality,” March 21, 2023
2 Statistics Canada, “Canadian Survey on Business Conditions, first quarter 2023,” Feb. 27, 2023
3,4 Built In, “Is the Construction Industry Ready to Embrace Robots?” Aug. 31, 2022
5 Technology Cards, “Construction 3D printing”
6 The Globe and Mail, “Will 3-D-printed buildings alleviate the construction labour shortage?” Jan. 10, 2023
7 JLL, “3D printed buildings push construction boundaries”
8 Forbes, “Construction Tech And The Future of Workers In The Industry,” Oct. 12, 2022
9 Forbes, “Phantom Auto Tech Helping Unlikely Workers Fill Logistics Labor Shortage,” Jan. 16, 2023
10 For Construction Pros, “Remote, Autonomous Construction Equipment Technologies Increase Safety and Productivity,” June 4, 2020
11 Pro Builder, “Teleo Turns Construction Machines into Remotely Operated, Semi-autonomous Robots,” March 27, 2023
12 Business.com, “How Virtual Reality is Changing Manufacturing,” March 23, 2023
13,15 CGS, “How Mixed Reality Is Helping to Offset the Labor Shortage,” May 11, 2022
14 Creators Wanted, “Creators Wanted Moves the Needle in Decatur”