In the news: Unleashing Alberta’s Productivity

Note: This article originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal on April 21, 2015 with the title “Radically Alter the Face of Construction”

Unleashing Alberta’s Productivity
Three “radical” ways Alberta’s construction industry can be part of the solution to the recent financial downturn

By Paul de Jong

Everyone in Alberta these days has a strong view about the election currently underway: its timing, its cost, the issues.  A key discussion point has been Premier Jim Prentice’s March 26 budget, which he characterized at the time as “the most significant budget in modern times in the province.  It will have impacts … on every single person in the province.  These are challenging times and all Albertans need to be part of the solutions,” he recently said on the radio.  And now Albertans will cast their vote.

Challenging times indeed.  The recent, drastic drop in Alberta’s oil tax revenues brings into stark relief the need for Alberta to diversify its economy and find new, creative and increasingly productive ways to offer its best to the world.  Nowhere does this apply more directly than in Alberta’s current and future energy developments, infrastructure and heavy industrial construction.

Members of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) – which include the largest builders in Western Canada and who employ well over 20,000 employees in Alberta – are ready to provide solutions.  Our members confirm that energy project owners are looking for radical savings and efficiencies wherever they can be found.  At PCA we believe that this time solutions need to go beyond business as usual.  “Radical” measures should not only be considered; they should be welcome.

PCA members believe that Alberta’s labour regime should be modernized to reflect the reality of construction in this province. Historically construction in our province was done according to a rather limiting “union vs. non-union” formula. These two poles or pillars of construction provision have over the past couple of decades been joined by a third progressive pillar.  The companies who comprise this third pillar embrace and exemplify three key concepts that have the power to ‘radically’ alter the face of industrial construction and would do a great deal today to make this province an attractive and productive place for the workforce of tomorrow – while increasing productivity and efficiency and thereby lowering costs on today’s governments:

First, allow increased competition and innovation in labour models.   PCA members have long championed the concept of the “open managed site”. Construction owners — increasingly international – require, and are looking for flexibility in labour models as they plan their future projects.  This entails traditional unions, non-union, and progressive labour working on projects together.  Project owners should be free to deploy the model(s) that work best for their needs.  Alberta’s labour laws reflect the realities of years gone by and need to be updated to maximise choice and competition, while continuing to recognize the rights of all workers.

Second, increase creative collaboration between contractors and labour.  PCA members engage with their labour partner in the practice of “all employee bargaining units” where contractors bargain collectively with all skilled trades as a single group, fostering the sense of shared enterprise between management and labour, creating synergies, and reducing administration. This has not been the norm with traditional labour, where contractors typically bargain with a multitude of unions – each with their own often contrasting priorities and jurisdictions.  A collaborative workplace with shared goals is more efficient and a more productive place to work.

Third, maximize productivity through labour innovation.  One example of PCA members’ innovation is the concept of multi-skilling, which allows workers to practice multiple trades on the same job site, enabling them to adapt their roles as projects move forward and require change. Research shows that multi-skilling offers many productivity benefits. Projects that utilize a multi-skilled workforce from beginning to end reduce costly transitions (such as layoffs and transfers) and improve labour retention. Contractors are able to use multi-skilled employees more effectively throughout a project: their diverse skills allow flexibility in job assignments, making them more competitive and efficient.

As Premier Prentice has repeatedly stated, these are not times for the faint of heart.  Alberta’s challenges require solutions that point us all towards a more stable, prosperous and productive future.   We have pulled together before – and can do so again.   Alberta’s construction industry has the skills, labour and creativity to respond effectively.  PCA and its member companies believe now is the time for innovative labour model changes to dramatically change the construction landscape, increasing productivity – and ultimately reducing costs to government and taxpayers.

Paul de Jong is the President of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA)