August 28, 2017

By Scott McFatridge

The Government of Ontario recently unveiled a new initiative to help tradespeople acquire green building skills. Scott at Smart Prosperity Institute explains why this is important for the green economy and decent work agendas.

Buildings are responsible for 12% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and for almost one quarter of Ontario’s. So improving the energy and GHG performance of new and existing buildings is a major GHG-cutting opportunity. This is recognized in both the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change and also in Ontario’s Climate Change Action Plan.

Meanwhile, constructing and retrofitting buildings directly employs over 1 million Canadians.

The big question is: how will greening our buildings affect workers in the construction and retrofit industry?

Two recent reports give us a pretty good idea of the scale of possible impacts. The first, from Environmental Defence, estimated that the $1.91 billion to $2.73 billion allocated toward building retrofits in Ontario’s Climate Change Action Plan could lead to approximately 24,500-32,900 person-years of employment over five years. The other from the Columbia Institute and Canada’s Building Trades Unions found that, in order to reach net zero emissions by 2050, Canada would require approximately 88,000 construction workers per year to build and retrofit non-residential buildings. This means that there will be a demand for workers with these skills. The challenge lies in ensuring the workforce is ready – that current workers can “skill-up” and future workers can get the right training now in order to be ready for those jobs when they enter the workforce.

Ensuring that workers have the right skills for the job can be tougher than it sounds - despite the opportunity offered by low-carbon buildings, there are a number of challenges in preparing the workforce. For instance, implementing low-carbon construction and retrofitting practices involves knowledge of ongoing developments in building codes, understanding energy-efficient building construction, retrofitting and sealing practices, as well as judgment and flexibility on how to cost-effectively implement these practices in many different building types while meeting professional standards (Calvert 2015, ch.7; O’Grady 2010). For cyclical industries with many small employers like construction, it can be challenging for workers and apprentices to access training when long-term demand for these skills is uncertain (Calvert 2015, ch.7).

Last week’s announcement shows that the Government of Ontario has been paying close attention to these issues

The Government has pledged to invest $24 million from carbon market proceeds into a number of training initiatives related to green building skills. These include working closely with employers, unions and other stakeholders to strengthen training programs in green building competences, establishing standards for new green training modules amongst apprentices, and providing new and refurbished training facilities. The Government will also provide support for labor market research in green occupations.

What this means for decent work

The Government’s actions on skills and training will help address some of the challenges we’ve identified in our forthcoming report from our project on Decent Work in the Green Economy (see this blog post more information on the project), such as the need to support workers as they acquire green skills and for improving labor market research on green industries and occupations (the recent announcement on wage subsidies for youth entering green occupations shows that the Federal Government has also been paying attention to these issues). We’ll also have lots more to say about policy opportunities for creating decent work and supporting vulnerable and traditionally disadvantaged workers, such as Indigenous peoples and new Canadians, so that all workers can find opportunity in the transition to a green economy.