There has been a lot of talk about building back better, but what if building back better actually involves building back smaller with a focus on people, the planet and profit for family-owned, Canadian contractors.
Federal stimulus funding is a massive opportunity to address energy efficiency shortfalls in our current, taxpayer-owned buildings. Investing in these small-to-medium sized renewal and expansion projects can create jobs for the greatest number of construction companies in Canada, while simultaneously improving our environmental footprint and leaving a positive social impact.
It’s good government policy to invest in infrastructure in Canada. For the most part, Canadians expect this as an approach most relevant in the face of an economic downturn. In the past, governments have focused stimulus with an eye on job creation. In 2020 and beyond, we need to focus efforts on what kind of jobs are being created and who we are putting to work. If governments are committing billions of dollars, we need to be generating economic, environmental and social benefits.
One may assume that the best way to stimulate the economy through infrastructure spending would be to hit ‘go’ on mega-projects like a new public transit line, bridges, and the packaging of projects like this into a larger initiative such as Toronto’s $11 billion Ontario Line Transit Expansion project. This is an important project for the long-term benefit of the city, the biggest infrastructure project on the books in Ontario, but we must not lose sight on how stimulus funds can make the greatest impact in the immediate future with long-term gains.
According to Natural Resources Canada, greenhouse gas emissions from the built-environment account for 17 per cent of Canada’s overall emissions. There is an overabundance of 1980’s era buildings owned by taxpayer funded entities. Many of those buildings are large emitters that are contributing heavily to the climate crisis; they are structurally sound but have failed exteriors and mechanical systems that are at the end of their lifecycle. These upgrades can be replaced while the building is occupied, meaning this work can proceed very quickly, especially if the building’s use does not change. It also gives owners a chance to modernize interior space configurations at the same time to improve the health, productivity and efficiency of workers.
These projects also support keeping stimulus funds local. According to the Canadian Construction Association, 70 per cent of the construction industry consists of small and medium-sized enterprises. The average company is family-owned with less than a hundred employees. This means that most of the industry is not equipped to build mega-sized infrastructure projects.
If project contract values are too large, most of the construction industry will be excluded. This will result in tremendous concentration of benefits that will diminish the Canadian economic and employment multiplier of the infrastructure investment in the first place. If funding is directed to an average project size of $10 to $50 million, they can be managed by these typical-sized trades companies. This allows the broadest segment of the Canadian construction industry to participate in stimulus projects, spreading dollars around Canadian society as opposed to concentrating the wealth.
Let me offer a few examples. Think about getting a 1970’s era fire hall retrofitted to be net zero. Imagine a 40-year-old library falling into disrepair being reimagined as a community centre with a library, a hockey rink and pool.
Aging buildings can negatively impact the health of people within them, what if a not-for-profit seniors housing operator could apply for a grant to upgrade a mechanical system that would lead to an improved quality of life for the seniors living in their facilities? I imagine how we could transition Indigenous-infrastructure beyond pieced-together facilities to contribute to reconciliation.
As we look at awarding stimulus funding to projects, governments need to make social procurement—at no premium capital cost—a significant selection criterion. Contractors should look like the society they operate in, and funding criteria for stimulus projects has a chance to influence that.
There is no denying the construction industry has a labour crisis. When was the last time you heard a 13-year-old talk about becoming a plumber? We have the chance to change this trend by hiring at risk youth, Indigenous peoples, women and new Canadians.
Business needs to be a force for good. You can hire anyone to for an entry-level position—office staff or labourers—for $19 an hour. But being thoughtful about who we are hiring and why can make a significant impact. Bringing aboard a young adult working two minimum wage jobs to provide for a brother or a sister because a parent isn’t around can lead to a lifetime of opportunity. Putting them through an apprenticeship program can take them even farther.
Our industry can reverse a potential path towards crime and poverty by giving people a chance. This reduces strain on the social system and creates local jobs. And it costs us nothing to do this because we need to hire people where limited experience is required anyway.
What we get in return is a highly motivated and loyal workforce. We also develop a more diverse talent pool that is desperately needed in an industry which has suffered from decreasing enrollment and, in many instances, social stigma. It also creates mid-to-high earning taxpayers as doors open to larger opportunities for these team members.
We need stimulus funding to have the greatest impact economically, environmentally and socially.
The opportunities from investments of this magnitude require us to be more thoughtful about what and how we build. Building retrofits has huge potential, specifically in expanding existing provincial and municipal programs to enhance energy efficiency and climate resiliency. This can be a big win—for our economy, the environment, Canadian contractors and the communities they operate in.
Tim Coldwell is President of Chandos Construction Ltd. the largest B-Corp Certified commercial builder in North America. They are a national construction company interested in doing social good at scale.
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