Friday, April 20, 2018
By Joe Barrett and Corry Anderson-Fennell
B.C., we have a problem.
“Large public infrastructure projects should give opportunities to B.C. residents and, in particular, groups underrepresented in the construction sector, such as Indigenous communities, apprentices, and women in trades. But that’s not the case right now,” said Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the BC Building Trades. Sigurdson pointed to the Site C Dam in northeast B.C. as an example.
According to the latest BC Hydro employment statistics, only 11 of the 1,681 workers at Site C last November were apprentices. There were only 239 women and 96 Indigenous workers at Site C during the same month. Almost one-quarter of the total workforce is sourced from outside the province.
BC Hydro lumps together construction jobs and non-construction occupations (office, kitchen, and housing work) so it is unlikely that all the women and Indigenous workers were skilled tradespeople.
“What we have here is a crisis in construction,” said Sigurdson. The crisis has been building for many years, he said. The former provincial Liberal government’s elimination of compulsory trades in 2002 opened the door for cheaper, unskilled labour to perform work previously done by apprentices or journeypersons. This led to compromises in safety, quality, and consumer protection.
Fast-forward to 2018 and B.C. remains the only province in Canada that does not require certification for construction trades. Without Red Seal certification, uncertified workers don’t meet industry standards and their mobility to work in other provinces is restricted.
Meanwhile, a Statistics Canada study shows that fewer than four per cent of apprentices in construction trades are women, a shocking situation when the industry faces a looming skilled trades shortage as older workers retire. “It’s a race to the bottom floor, and we’re almost there,” said Sigurdson. For Maple Ridge mom Jasmine Wagner, apprenticeship in a Red Seal trade saved her from the mountain of student loan debt she accumulated while getting her bachelor of fine arts degree from Simon Fraser University. In spite of her degree, Wagner’s job prospects were limited, so she began looking to the construction trades as a way to support herself and her infant son.
Wagner enrolled in an introductory trades course at the United Association Piping Industry College of BC and quickly found a fit as a welder. “Welding wasn’t even remotely on my radar,” she said, “but the moment I stepped into that first booth and struck my first arc, I was hooked.” Wagner took the welding program offered by the piping college and was hired by Bantrel Constructors at the $4.8 billion (US) Kitimat Modernization Project before she’d even completed her pre-apprenticeship. She joined more than 500 other women working on that project.
“This job was an incredible opportunity for me,” recalled Wagner, a member of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 170. “We had an amazing amount of arc-on time up there, which is extremely important for apprentices.” Being able to live and work in the same community is also important. Just ask Brian Geidt, who worked alongside two of his daughters and one son at the Revelstoke Generating Station. “All of us were given the opportunity because we were local hires,” said Geidt, a member of Labourers Local 1611.
Construction runs in the Geidt family’s blood. Tired of the city, Geidt’s father moved the family to Revelstoke in the 1960s and started working for the Tunnel and Rock Workers’ Union. Local 168 later became one of the four union locals that merged to become Local 1611.
Geidt’s daughters joined Local 1611 to work on the generating station while his oldest son apprenticed at the station as a carpenter. Geidt’s youngest son also worked at the station for a couple of years as a member of Local 1611 before starting an apprenticeship as a boilermaker.
“Over the years, I’ve worked with lots of apprentices who’ve now moved on to other projects up north [and] around the province and now have careers in construction,” said Geidt.
Without compulsory trades and the assurances that come with the apprenticeship certification process, Geidt said he has no idea the level of training, knowledge, and experience the worker next to him might have. His concerns double when he thinks about the safety of members of his family. “It’s troublesome because you don’t know…how much training they’ve had. Does the person know what’s involved working underground, with concrete?”
The BC Building Trades is advocating for measures that ensure opportunities for apprentices, Indigenous communities, women in trades, and local hiring on large public projects in B.C.
BCBT affiliates also invest more than $18 million annually in training and have more than 6,000 apprentices and trainees.
The BC Building Trades is committed to advancing opportunities for women in trades through the initiative Build TogetHER: The Women of the BC Building Trades, which promotes, supports, and mentors women in the skilled construction industry.
But it’s obvious there is much more to be done.
Contact the BC Building Trades office