Outreach efforts are crucial to building a diverse construction workforce. Photo: Box Cube Photography

Finding tomorrow's workers today

Someone once told Saud Siddiqui he would make a great car salesman. He considered the advice, but it was already too late. He was sold on a career in construction.

Hired by PCL as a labourer last July, he recently began a three-year apprenticeship as a concrete finisher. When asked about his job, he speaks of the satisfaction he takes in working on projects like Rogers Place (Edmonton's downtown arena) and the neighbouring City Tower. As he notes, anyone can do a bit of household handiwork after watching a quick YouTube tutorial. It takes an entirely different level of skill and commitment to work on a massive commercial project like the arena district.

"I could have started an apprenticeship after three months, but I stayed my ground as a labourer just to get a hang of it—just to get an idea of everything," he says.

PCL might never have found him if not for the Water Wings program at the Boyle Street Community Services in downtown Edmonton. Encouraged by a friend to check out the program, Siddiqui took advantage of its free employment readiness services, which range from resume advice to safety ticket training. For someone like himself, new to Edmonton and looking for work, the program was invaluable preparation for entering the construction field.

Water Wings is just one example of the types of programs the construction industry must work with if it is to ensure a healthy supply of workers well into the future. In its most recent forecasts, BuildForce Canada estimates that 36,200 construction workers will retire between now and 2024. New people are entering the industry every day, but 11,700 workers are still needed to keep up with economic growth and compensate for the migration of workers to British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in the coming years.

So far, PCL has hired 12 people through the Water Wings program, and it could have hired even more if it had the work for them, according to workforce manager Kent Dietrich. He observes that the new hires have a 60 per cent success rate, which is slightly higher than the company's usual rate when hiring straight off the street. The program essentially acts as a pre-screening mechanism, allowing the company to tap into a committed pool of applicants.

"We will teach you the skills that you need to be successful, but you've got to bring something to the table, which is reliability and motivation," Dietrich says. "And that's the great thing about this program. Those individuals in there fit that criteria."

With attention now focused on the slowing economy, the long-term development of the workforce faces another challenge. According to BuildForce, the interruption to Alberta's growth shifts labour requirements to later in the decade, when the province may find itself struggling to recruit workers that simply aren't there. Rosemary Sparks, the organization's executive director, emphasizes that the industry needs to focus on long-term planning if it wants to ensure a ready supply of workers once activity picks up again.

Training takes time

"You can't create a skilled tradesperson overnight," she says. "It takes four or five years, depending on the trade."

Tackling that challenge will require workers from all demographics, including those groups that traditionally have made up a smaller proportion of the construction labour pool, such as women, Aboriginals and immigrants. Certainly, the industry has made great strides in diversifying its workforce, but many barriers must still fall before under-represented groups have a clear path into the field.

Consider the presence of women in the construction workforce. Women have increased their numbers in the industry, but Sparks suggests that is largely because the overall workforce has grown. The percentage of women—around four or five per cent of the total workforce, she says—has remained static in recent years.

Almost every under-represented group struggles to access the training facilities and equipment necessary to prepare them for the job. Deborah Mates, executive director of the CWA Foundation—a charity that supports welding training initiatives across the country—has been working with organizations like Edmonton's Women Building Futures to address those access issues, as well as other problems like childcare, which remains one of the most pressing barriers to getting women into trades training.

"Many of them are single moms, and getting out and going to school is a huge challenge if they have children at home," she says. "The costs associated with childcare impede their ability to pay for their education or be away at school during the day."

Aboriginals face equally steep hurdles to participation in the construction workforce, which is why the province has partnered with Bow Valley College in Calgary and Norquest College in Edmonton to create an Alberta Aboriginal Construction Career Centre (AACCC). The $2.3-million, two-year pilot program will provide everything from career counselling to safety courses and assistance with job placement—not only for Aboriginals, but for anyone who wishes to join, such as the many newcomers to Canada already taking part in pre-employment training at the two colleges.

Ruby Littlechild, AACCC program manager at Norquest, says that Edmonton is home to the second-largest urban Aboriginal population in Canada after Winnipeg, and the city is on track to eventually become the largest. All too often marginalized and lacking in self-confidence, members of this group need to be empowered through education, she explains. At the same time, companies need to receive cross-cultural awareness to understand the barriers that have held back the community in the past.

"It's only been 138 years ago that we agreed to treaty here in Alberta," Littlechild says. "Our communities are still in states of healing, and they're still adapting to colonization."

Ken McKen, CWA's western Canada manager, has been exploring potential partnerships to promote welding training with Aboriginal groups throughout the province, and he has seen firsthand the many factors that conspire to keep First Nations members out of the workforce. One of the most significant is the simple fact that many Aboriginals on reserves lack driver's licences and cannot access the same opportunities found in larger centres. Educational resources on reserves need to be improved, but people also need to be encouraged to venture beyond their own community to seek training and career options, he says.

Attraction techniques

Construction is a hands-on activity, and direct exposure to the work remains the most persuasive advertisement for a career in the industry. Organizations like the CWA Foundation are tackling this issue by bringing a welding simulator to events across the country to give youth an early taste of the trade, but students are still overlooking bursaries and scholarships designed to support construction training, according to Mates. More work needs to be done to ensure people see the trades as a viable career.

"What we've learned in research that we've done in the past is that a lot of individuals don't know about the options that are available to them," Sparks says. "They don't know how to get started and get into the industry."

However, making that connection can be as difficult for the industry as it is for the individual. PCL only discovered the Water Wings program after Boyle Street approached the company. It had been completely unaware of the untapped potential that lay just a few blocks north of the Edmonton arena project.

"We didn't know how to access those pools [of workers], and they didn't know how to access us," Dietrich says.

Once the industry finds a way to open those doors, it might be surprised at how many people are waiting to come in. Last summer, the CWA Foundation launched a pilot project involving at-risk youth, including a number of Aboriginals. The organization bused them out to its new facility in Nisku, Alta., provided breakfast and lunch, and offered a hands-on introduction to welding over the course of a week. The program proved so popular that the foundation had to add a second session to accommodate demand. The enthusiasm shown by the youth suggests there may even be a few future welders in the bunch.

"Everybody has got what it takes," McKen says. "It's just a matter of getting proper direction from the right people and moving them on to the next step."

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