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‘This is labour’s time to shine’: Sean Strickland on the role of the building trades in Canada’s green economy transition

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Podcast & Video

The Hub is partnering with Pathways Alliance to promote greater awareness and discussion of the goal of decarbonizing Canada’s oil sands production to reach net zero emissions from operations by 2050. Through a six-part podcast series produced for Pathways, Hub readers and listeners will get the latest analysis and insights of industry experts and leaders who are acting on Pathways’ ambitious call to action. For more information on Pathways visit pathwaysalliance.ca. Are you leading an industry group with an important public policy message? If so be sure to check out The Hub’s new digital marketing platform here.  

The featured guest in this episode is Sean Strickland, executive director of Canada’s Building Trades Unions (CBTU), who joins host Rudyard Griffiths to discuss the challenge of decarbonizing industry, the pressing need to bring more people into the trades in Canada, and how labour can contribute to a greener Canadian economy.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, or Spotify.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Sean, welcome to Hub Dialogues.

SEAN STRICKLAND: Thanks. It’s great to be here. Looking forward to the conversation.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Ditto. We’ve been going around the horn, so to speak, talking to a lot of the key players involved directly or in the orbit of the Pathways initiative. Labour, obviously, is a huge piece of this. If we’re going to meet our net-zero targets from operations by 2050, we’re talking big public infrastructure private builds that have got to be done at scale and on time.

Getting a labour perspective on the opportunities and the challenges here is really important. Let’s start there, Sean. What’s the current state of the building trades and the experience and resources that Canada has right now that it can marshal to undertake this ambitious target of Pathways?

SEAN STRICKLAND: Sure. Great question. Canada’s Building Trades, we represent 14 affiliated unions and 600,000 members right across Canada, who work predominantly in construction, fabrication, maintenance, and comprise 60 different trades. We’re quite busy. There’s lots of infrastructure happening right now. We have some pockets of unemployment, but we are working towards net zero, recognizing that there are a lot of challenges along that path to net zero. Some of the polling that we’ve done with our membership, but particularly those that work in oil and gas, are concerned and a little bit nervous. They want to make sure we get this transition right.

There have been many reports indicating that we could lose a substantial amount of jobs in traditional oil and gas between now and 2050, upwards of 400,000 jobs in oil and gas. That is a lot of our members. In Alberta, for example, we have 60,000 members. There are other reports from other institutions. I think it’s the Royal Bank, for example, indicates that if we get this transition right, we could create more jobs than we lose. They indicate that we could create up to 600,000 more jobs. That would be a net of 200,000.

We want to make sure we get the transition right because, as we lose those jobs in oil and gas, we have to make sure that projects like carbon sequestration for the Pathways’ small modular reactors, hydrogen projects, traditional nuclear renewables, that they all come on stream at the right time, so we don’t lose workers and no worker gets left behind as we go through this transition.

I’d say we’re very optimistic about the future, but we are a little bit nervous and we’re working really hard to make sure we get this transition right.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Great insights. I think one of the things we’ve heard in these Pathways conversations is the need for regulators to catch up with, as you say, the staging of this, right?

If we don’t get the permissions and the ability to move forward now, the multi-year decade-plus planning cycles to bring about these big energy transitions, as you say, that transition could be rougher and bumpier than it needs to be. Talk to us a bit about the skillsets that the trades are bringing to these challenges around decarbonization. My sense is that, thanks in many ways to the oil and gas industry over the previous decades, we’ve got a great workforce in terms of its ability to manage the challenges of implementing and building out these complex, large infrastructure projects based on new technologies. Is that the right assumption?

SEAN STRICKLAND: Absolutely, 100 percent. We have, I would say, the highest skilled trades workforce in the world. We have done tremendously complex projects. Right now, for example, we’re executing the $40 billion LNG facility in Kitimat, British Columbia. We’re also working on the multi-billion dollar Site C auto plants, manufacturing the oil and gas. At any given time, we have thousands of workers who initiated the oil sands discoveries and the upgraders and now are maintaining all of those facilities.

I say to people that—not even to mention all the nuclear facilities in Ontario—we’re a very well-diversed and highly skilled workforce. When people talk to us about transferability of skills, these new energy sources of the future, I say, “We’re there, and we have been there.” I say candidly that skilled trades force, skilled trades workers, we’ve been around since the aqueducts of Rome and the pyramids of Egypt. Now, the poor folks who built those pyramids in Egypt could have used a good collective agreement.

We always are adapting and changing. When our contractors get different jobs with different technologies, we go to our training centres and we train on those new technologies and those new ways to build buildings and those new ways to build new power systems. We’re constantly evolving in training, and training is in our DNA. We’re very well positioned to build these new energy sources and the new buildings of the future. Our biggest challenge, as you point out, is going to be in regulatory. We have to get that regulatory regime right.

We need to have some efficiencies in our regulatory framework between provincial and federal governments. We also need to look seriously at labour supply and how we can attract more people into the skilled trades. Those are the two biggest risks to this transition, I would say, is the regulatory framework and labour supply.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: What could you use from business, your partners, and also from government, to ensure that both you have, but also, as you say, we maintain this world-leading technical capacity amongst the trades so that when we’re coming to these—and let’s face it, they’re going to be complex infrastructure projects around, let’s say, technologies like carbon sequestration, working out and building out at scale is going to be no easy task. It’s an ambitious project. It’s going to require all of our attention and skill and focus.

What do you need from those two key partners to ensure that we’re going to have the workforce a decade from now that can continue this push towards net zero from operations by 2050?

SEAN STRICKLAND: I think that the various governments in various jurisdictions, the federal government is getting it, particularly on the drive to net zero and skilling of the workforce, and they’ve made investments in the union trading and innovation program. They’ve doubled those investments, and that helps with our 200 training centres right across the country. They’ve also put into place the Sustainable Jobs Act, which is going to help manage this transition, and labour is going to be at the table for that. That’s encouraging.

To meet the labour requirements, we need to have a look at our immigration system, and it’s important to realize that, in Canada, the entire construction industry brings in around 100,000 new apprentices every year, and even though we’re bringing in these new apprentices, those apprentices are just keeping pace with retirements. We’re able to keep pace with retirements and deliver the jobs today, but when you overlay that with these new jobs of the future, we’re going to have a gap and we’re going to need more workers.

Even though we’re bringing in apprentices, and we’re attracting young people, and we’re diversifying our workforce and getting more women, and Indigenous, and LGBTQ+, we’re doing everything we can as an industry to get more people into the industry, more apprentices. It’s not going to be enough based on the work picture that’s ahead of us. We need the government to help us with immigration. We need the government to help us with our education programs in our schools.

The shop classes and industrial arts that used to be there 25, 30 years ago, many have been phased out, and so we need to reposition the trades within our education systems as a very viable option for young people. It’s a good option for many compared to college and or university. Elevate the status of trades within our education system, and lay that on with some good progressive immigration policy where we can attract good skilled trades workers from overseas to come to Canada and contribute to growing and building our country.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Just some terrific insights there, Sean. I could not agree with you more, that we need to valorize the trades as just a terrific career opportunity for so many people. We’re putting a lot of human talent and potential into universities for higher education, and that’s great in that softer knowledge worker end of the job spectrum, but we need the very specific technical skills that are going to have to build out the infrastructure for all of us to live and work.

Let’s talk, Sean, a bit about the state of labour in Canada right now. Inflation has had a pernicious effect on the cost of living. Many Canadians, including I’m sure members are feeling the pinch of inflation. We’ve seen some large-scale labour unrest as a result, understandably. What is the feeling amongst your membership right now in terms of that balance of power between your union membership and the power that you represent vis-a-vis corporations?

Is there a rebalancing of that relationship and a greater opportunity for labour to share in the collective profits of the enterprises that you are engaged with in partnership with the corporations that are going to be leading, in this case, a lot of the build-out of this new infrastructure?

SEAN STRICKLAND: That’s a very insightful observation and question, Rudyard. I would say that labour based on—I was just at a conference recently with construction workers and union leaders. They shared some polling that they did amongst their membership. The number one concern, which it was unusual, we haven’t seen that before because oftentimes, it’s about job opportunities, and healthcare, and education, maybe environment, but the number one was finances.

Our members, they make good money, but when your mortgage payment goes up $500 to $700 a month, when it costs you twice as much maybe to fill your gas tank, this puts a lot of pressure on families’ pocketbooks, middle-class families who are making good money. When it comes to collective bargaining, in Ontario, for example, last year, we had, I think, it was six or seven strikes and the union executive were recommending to the membership that they take the offer from the employer. In all cases, the union membership turned it down. They said, “I need more than 2.5 percent.” Many of those settlements ended up at around 4 percent a year over three years.

We’re having settlements in the West right now that some are 5 percent and 6 percent. I think this is reflective of a couple things. It’s reflective of the fact that middle-class earners and skilled tradespeople are really feeling this financial pinch. You can read in the business papers about inflation, how it’s affecting people. Unless you’re living it, it’s hypothetical. Our members are living this, and they’re living this every day as they try to raise their families. That’s reflective, I think, in members’ willingness to go on strike for more pay so they can maintain their quality of life.

We’re not talking about making tremendous gains over and above inflation when you’re getting 4 percent increase and inflation is running at 3 percent. That’s reflective in the bargaining table as well. I think what we’re also going to see, particularly in construction, is that labour and labour supply is becoming much more of an issue for the successful execution of projects. When that happens, you got a lot of supply and demand come into play, and you need more labour and you need skilled labour.

Owners, corporate Canada, are beginning to realize that they have to pay for good skilled labour. I think that this is really a rebalancing of that power dynamic which is good for workers in Canada in the long run.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Let’s acknowledge that the dynamic, for a while, ran the other way. People should be aware that this is a good way to put it, a rebalance, and these skills are needed. They’re in high demand, which goes back to your insights, Sean, that the trades is a viable career option for younger people. Just do a better job of putting that on people’s radars. Because my contribution to this, Sean, maybe you would agree, are going to go away. I think highly skilled labour is going to be in demand for some time. We’ve got reshoring going on. We’ve got the decoupling in many cases of industries from overdependence on China and Asia.

Sean, doesn’t this all suggest labour’s preeminence is prominent in this drive over the next couple decades towards a greener economy and greener energy systems to power that economy. Maybe this is labour’s time to shine.

SEAN STRICKLAND: Yes, I would agree. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity, and it is labour’s time to shine. As I said from the onset, we have to make sure we get it right. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity. We have to seize on that opportunity. We have to get that regulatory regime correct. There’s no point in establishing targets to reduce our carbon to net zero if we can’t get the approvals in place to build a massive game-changing project like the Pathways Alliance. A $40 billion carbon sequestration project in Alberta that not only will extend the life of the oil sands, but extend that life of the oil sands in a net-zero carbon fashion, which would be world-leading.

If we can’t get the regulatory approvals in place in time, then we’re going to lose that opportunity. We’re going to lose that economic opportunity for Canada and workers for good. Similarly, in Ontario, where we have tremendous investments. We’re seeing a manufacturing renaissance in Ontario with the automotive, and clean steel as well, and other industries. Part of that is related to the raw materials being located in the mines in Ontario and Manitoba.

In Canada right now it takes up to 15 years to get approval for a new mine. That’s got to change if we’re going to be able to fulfill this economic promise of providing electrical vehicle producers, and electric battery producers, the lithium and the chromite, and the tungsten, and the copper, and all the rare minerals that they need.

There’s a lot of heavy lifting that needs to be done here on this file to get there, and we’re at the table with the government and with the industry to help us get there, because we need to get this right. As our economy’s gone through transitions in the past, workers were left behind and we weren’t at the table. It wasn’t too long ago we went through the U.S. and Canada free trade, and that cost us thousands and thousands of jobs, and changed people’s lives for a long time in a negative way.

People went to work on a regular basis and worked in our auto plants, and tire plants, and all kinds of manufacturing industries and there was no real plan attached to that transition in our economy. Then you overlaid that with the GST, it was like an economic disaster for 10 years for workers. The government gets that, they understand we need to do better in order to manage this transition, but this regulatory piece is critical.

If we get that right, I agree 100 percent this is going to be labour’s time to shine. It’s going to be a great opportunity for young people to get into the trades. The other thing about that is that we can recast and talk about a career in the trades not only as an apprentice and a journey person, but many of our trades people go on to run their own companies. There are management jobs, project managers, project directors.

In this case, you’re also talking about saving the planet. I know that sounds like an overstatement but when we’re reducing carbon and you’re working there at these facilities that are reducing carbon and providing the new energy sources of a future world and a carbon-free world, that’s pretty exciting for a tradesperson to be part of that, and we’re really hoping we can leverage that to attract more people into the industry.

I agree we have a tremendous opportunity in front of us but we have some heavy lifting to do to get there. We need to make sure, as a society, as a Canadian government, all governments of all stripes, and all jurisdictions, we need to get in that proverbial Canadian canoe and all paddle in the same direction to get there.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: That’s important. This regulatory piece is important because the government is moving forward with some pretty bold regulatory announcements from all-electric vehicle fleets in the country by the 2030s. We’ve got new guidelines out for power generation, saying any new natural gas plants built in Canada after 2025 are going to have to have carbon sequestration attached to them. These dates, Sean, are moving up fast.

I have maybe a concern here that our reach is exceeding our grasp. That we’re putting these very bold targets out but as you say, if we can’t get the approvals in place, it just seems to me as a risk here. A risk in staging and timing and potentially a lot of uncertainty. I guess what I’m hearing, Sean, through these podcasts talking to different people around Pathways, is just a persistent problem with uncertainty about corporations knowing where and how they can invest. I assume, you, in terms of your workers, understanding when these projects are going to happen and when you need to assemble the teams and the skills to deliver on these things.

To what extent is uncertainty still out there, Sean? To what extent do you think that’s really the nut that we have to crack? We need more certainty about how these projects are going to proceed on what timeframes and in what policy framework.

SEAN STRICKLAND: 100 percent. That’s the biggest risk to all of this. The challenge is when you set targets, and I don’t think we should adjust the targets for net zero by 2050 and reducing carbon in the oil sands—I can’t remember the exact number but I think it’s like 30 percent by 2030. We need to have those targets based in some sort of regulatory reality. That regulatory reality does not match up with the target right now in a lot of different sectors.

In some areas, it does, like the electrification of vehicles and the clean electricity policies. There are some areas where we’re going to be able to get there. There are some other areas where there’s greater uncertainty, and that uncertainty is a project killer because these are big corporations, big companies with lots of investment opportunities not only in Canada but also around the world.

That’s something that we need to continue to emphasize with the government. In the Sustainable Jobs Act, they recognize that and they are talking about regulatory efficiencies. Mr. Wilkinson talks about that. Minister Freeland talks about that. Minister Guilbeault talks about that. When you put legislation on paper and you say all the right kinds of things, that’s really encouraging, and the industry and Canadians can get excited about that.

Where we traditionally break down in Canada is when we take it from the legislative paper to the project execution and the regulatory framework and the final investment decision. That’s where it often breaks down in Canada. We have contemporary examples. I would say maybe 10, 12 years ago, we had proposals for almost a dozen LNG plants in Northern British Columbia and in Alberta because we need opportunities to get our oil to tidewater, and we need to get our natural resources to tidewater and not just down to the United States through our existing pipeline system. Of those dozen or so projects, we only ended up with one. For a variety of reasons, the other ones all fell by the wayside.

We missed a tremendous second opportunity there and that’s something that the government’s trying to focus on, trying to pay attention to, but if you are a private sector developer and you’re looking at making billions and billions of dollars of investments in these new energy sources of the future, hydrogen and SMRs, you need certainty. I think that’s something that we need to work on more with the regulatory bodies and with the federal government to drive more certainty into and beyond the legislation and toward project execution so businesses and Canadians can make the decisions and really buy into this path to net zero.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Imagine if we had had all that liquified natural gas capacity up and running and we could’ve, to this horrible war in Ukraine, provided our allies and other similarly likewise countries with secure energy, both in Asia, but ultimately, if we could have figured it out, in Europe too. Think of the contribution that would’ve made both to peace and security in the world and frankly to Canada’s own preeminence and influence internationally.

Sean, I think what’s exciting to me in this story around a drive to this is by 2050 is it’s a chance for Canada to obtain a critical economy, but it’s also important to how we’re perceived internationally and what Canada’s value add is to the world. I know that you must think about these things. You must be trying to walk, thread a needle, so to speak, between working with government and pushing government.

Do you think we get this, Sean? Let’s leave government aside for a moment. A lot of negativity at times. I’m recording talking to you from downtown Toronto. I have to say, at times, I feel that a lot of people in this city here in Toronto are quick to write off the energy sector in Canada. They’re quick to say, “Let’s move on. We should be all renewables, we should be all hydroelectric.” Do you think there’s a problem here in terms of education amongst the broader public of the energy sector to our own population just to Canada’s proposition of what the heck do we offer the world?

SEAN STRICKLAND: I agree 100 percent. Not to be too glib about it, but there is a component, many urban educated folks believe that we should leave the oil in the ground. I think that that opinion has started to change in terms of economic and world order based on your reference to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. If we had those LNG plants, I think that would’ve severely weakened Russia’s position when they invaded Ukraine.

I think that there is a changing of the thinking around good oil versus bad oil. There are international energy agencies talking about how much oil production is actually going to have to go up between now and 2050 just based on world population and world growth and industry.

A lot of folks, just that education piece, and this is where I’m referencing, I don’t want to be too glib about it, but almost 90 percent of the plastic, almost 90 percent of the parts in a Tesla come from oil and gas. People don’t understand that the plastic chair they’re sitting on comes from the oil and gas industry, the cosmetics that we use come from oil and gas. The oil and gas and the oil industry and the tremendous amount of manufacturing that comes out of the oil sands and oil itself permeates all of our modern living.

It concerns me sometimes when folks—and I have nothing against Tesla, I think it’s great that we go to electric vehicles, and they’ve done a pretty good job of that. My opinions on their CEO aside, but I think that people don’t understand. They get into a Tesla, and they go, “Good, I’m saving the planet. Let’s leave the oil on the ground,” but wait a minute, if it wasn’t for oil, you wouldn’t be sitting in a Tesla right now. I think that’s an education piece that we need to share with people.

As people fly around the world, the jet fuel comes from oil and gas. There’s a tremendous amount of economic and manufacturing processes that use oil, and you’re dead on, we need to do a better education, improved education on all these manufacturing aspects of oil, and their substrates and how they’re used to create our modern world.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Sean, thank you so much for such a fulsome conversation. We touched on a lot of the key issues and ideas that I was hoping we would. If people want to find out more about Canada’s Building Trades Unions, where can they go?

SEAN STRICKLAND: CBTU.ca, that’s our website. I would also encourage your listeners, if they’re interested in a career in the trades, you go to our website, you can also get a link to constructiontradeshub.ca, which has all reviews of the 60 different construction trades in Canada and what it would require to get into the trades. Some really good resources on our website.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Excellent, Sean. Thank you so much. Looking forward to talking again with you, and congratulations on all the important things that Building Trades are doing with regards to Canada’s various commitments to decarbonize our economy. Fantastic conversation, appreciate it.

SEAN STRICKLAND: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure, Rudyard. Come back anytime. Thanks.

This content was produced as part of a paid promotional partnership with Pathways Alliance.

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