Many construction veterans are staying on the job rather than retire

Many construction veterans are staying on the job rather than retire

Aging construction workers face physical challenges

Royal Roads University professor studies the consequences of retaining older labourers

Despite the construction boom on the West Shore and across the region, some experts are warning of the potential dangers for older employees in this industry and the trickle effect that has on other resources.

With five years of research under her belt on the subject, Royal Roads University professor Carolin Rekar Munro said, “I call it the ‘hang-on-tight’ factor.”

With more than 75 per cent of Canadians not feeling prepared for their retirement, Munro said many people, especially baby boomers, are staying in the workforce longer than was once predicted. And with older workers remaining in labour intensive industries such as construction, researchers are starting to see higher rates of injury, absenteeism and errors, resulting in higher rates of benefit uses.

“It’s just this ongoing cycle for the employer. The return on investment is going to be a concern,” Munro said.

The scenario has also prompted an increase in self medication through drugs or alcohol as employees try to cope with pain. “That’s got a spiralling downward effect,” she said. “We’ve got a real issue on our hands … It’s not enough to say we need to have better pension plans.”

Even as older workers exit the workforce, many employers look to Generation Y or millennial workers to fill the labour voids.

The Vancouver Island Construction Association (, for example, is offering a program starting Nov. 7 called Youth Constructing a Future, for individuals aged 15 to 29 who are not currently working or in school and are not eligible for EI. The aim to is to develop in participants basic job-entry skills to include in applications for construction employment.

But as Munro pointed out, Gen Y and millennials in general are not particularly attracted to physical labour. Those who are in industries such as construction, she said, are there for “the fast money … They would rather be the manager of, or the owner of a company.” Their long-term goals don’t lean towards working for someone else for the duration of their working life, she added.

While younger workers tend to be reluctant to step into labour-intensive jobs, “there are also a significant number of baby boomers staying on, simply because they can’t afford to retire.” It’s a problem she said requires local, national and international action, sooner rather than later.

Three-pronged approach might help older workers plan for retirement

Munro sees an opportunity to create an easier pathway to retirement for construction workers and others, using a three-prong approach she believes could solve some of the hurdles older workers face.

The first is to revisit union and workplace pension plans, with employees engaged on a meaningful level and their input heavily regarded. “We can sometimes be isolating [despite] including all the key stakeholders in discussions,” she said.

While those discussions should include what employees want their retirement to look like, Munro said they also need to address what needs to change in the workplace and what services need to be offered.

“That doesn’t just mean telling people to eat an apple a day,” she said, noting that changes and guidance must be more significant. “We are behind in terms of how we structure our workday.”

She pointed to how workers are accommodated and how the expectations around that are changing.

“[Some companies in] Sweden [are] now moving to a six-hour work day,” she said, adding people are far more productive working for six hours rather than the standard eight. They also have more time for themselves, which for many means engaging in such healthy activities as going for a workout after work or spending more time with family. “The plate’s only so big, you can only put so much on it.”

When workers try to cram in too many activities, they burn out and this can have a grave impact on all areas of their life, not just their workday.

The second shift that needs to happen, Munro said, is that pension plans should be employee-led and employee managed. “I’m going to invite employers to start having that conversation with their employees.”

Playing into that, the third prong in her plan is educating employees better about managing their own retirement plans, “so they can handle their own choices.” It’s something she said is drastically absent in high school and post-secondary educations, but should be built into curriculum.

Simplifying the language surrounding retirement plans and saving could also go a long way in helping that process, Munro added. “We are following what others are saying … without really understanding it.”

She recognizes that getting employers to accept some or all of these changes will be no easy feat. “This is not a wand you can wave to make changes. This is a significant paradigm shift.”

Six-hour day not a new idea

A six-hour work day has been tried before on a large scale. In 1930, cereal company founder W.K. Kellogg learned an English soap company had success boosting productivity when it switched to six-hour shifts from the standard eight.

Kellogs’ move from three eight-hour shifts to four six-hour shifts helped rehire 300 people thrown out of work by the Great Depression and required a slight pay cut by existing workers.

The move improved efficiency, reduced overhead, labour costs and the number of work-related accidents, but also increased employee activities outside the plant. The company returned to eight-hour shifts in 1943 due to the labour shortage and product demand during the Second World War, but switched back after the war.

Employees soon after rallied for longer shifts and the larger paycheques that went with them, but it wasn’t until 1985 that all six-hour shifts were removed from the plant.