By Donna Mayer
Special to Ontario Construction News
Motivated by the ongoing recruitment challenge in the construction sector and a desire to increase gender diversity in the workplace, one of Canada’s largest construction and infrastructure development companies has contracted with the largest construction local union in North America to deliver apprenticeship training to an all-female class.
Spearheaded by Aecon’s Utilities division, the Labourers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) Local 183 Training Centre delivered the first phase of their Apprentice Construction Craft Worker training to a class of 12 women this summer.
The apprentices are currently on Aecon job sites around Ontario working towards their Red Seal certifications. A second class of trainees has recently commenced at the training centre.
Described as a program dedicated to helping women lace up their boots and kick start their careers at Aecon, the Aecon Women in Trades (AWIT) program offers women career-building opportunities in the trades through hands-on training, mentorship and field experience.
“We’re building a workforce as diverse as the communities we help build every day,” says Jenna Wood, Director, Human Resources, Aecon Utilities. “Recruiting and retaining the best talent our industry has to offer and embracing their unique perspectives and identities make us stronger.”
Aecon operates across its construction segment in the Civil, Urban Transportation, Nuclear, Utility and Conventional Industrial sectors, and provides project development, financing, investment and management services through its Concessions segment.
Aecon approached LiUNA in February looking for a training delivery partner for their pool of candidates. By May, 12 new recruits were in the classroom.
“It kind of fit their model,” says Sandro Pinto, executive director of the LiUNA Local 183 Training Centre, of their Apprentice Construction Craft Worker program. “It is very well rounded.”
LiUNA’s Apprentice Construction Craft Worker program includes everything from form-setting and concrete work, to small tools, machines, and earth-work. There is extensive emphasis on health and safety.
“We build a more alert worker,” says Pinto.
Turning to LiUNA to deliver the training component of their program was a natural fit for Aecon.
“Aecon has a long-standing, successful partnership with LiUNA which is critical to the delivery of many of Aecon’s projects,” says Wood. “We’re proud to once again work with LiUNA and strengthen our workforce through diversity.”
The Aecon Women in Trades (AWIT) Program includes an introduction to Aecon, the construction industry and the Utilities sector, extensive training, including health and safety, job-specific skills and preparing for work on-site and job-readiness training, as well as information on career paths in construction.
“The program gives women the opportunity to gain hands-on skills and explore what a career in this industry has to offer, or which craft they are most interested in before entering the field,” says Wood.
“Throughout the training and upon field placement, the women make strong connections and network with other women in the AWIT program and across Aecon,” says Wood.
The AWIT program is led by Aecon Utilities, which provides construction services across Canada in the areas of telecommunications infrastructure, fibre optic networks, power distribution networks, gas pipelines, district and renewable energy, as well as water distribution and sewer collection systems.
Following the training, program participants are placed in roles in high demand within Aecon’s Utilities group in Ontario, such as utility/general labourer, directional driller, or fibre optic splicer. Placements depend on availability, the participants’ preferences and role-specific requirements.
“Our first group of 12 participants are now successfully working in a variety of roles and work types across our Aecon Utilities business and have had the opportunity to apply their training to the field. We are excited to see them begin their careers in the Construction industry, and look forward to seeing them continue to progress in this field with Aecon,” says Wood.
The first class of women will be going back to the classroom for second level training 10-12 months after their initial field work.
“It is a Red Seal apprenticeship,” said Pinto. “They are eligible for all Red Seal benefits including tax-deductions for companies.”
The union had not operated a women’s only class before this program. Will it work, they wondered?
“It really did,” says Pinto. “The instructor raved about how engaged the women were.” The women will become union members and the union will support them in the field to complete their apprenticeship.
“The union is going to support a woman as it supports a man,” said Pinto.
The training partnership is the most recent Aecon initiative to recruit women to the sector and the company. Aecon has been making gender diversity and inclusion corporate strategic priorities in recent years. According to Wood, Aecon seeks out opportunities to hire and promote women at all operational levels and is committed to employing women throughout the business in operational, engineering and construction roles. Women currently fill leadership roles on Aecon’s Board of Directors and Executive Committee, and women provide operational expertise in several senior management positions.
In 2014, the company established the Aecon Women Inclusion Network (AWIN). The network’s three-part mission is to support women through mentorship, build awareness and support within the company, and develop a strong presence externally in support of attracting, retaining and advancing women in the industry.
Relying on AWIN “champions” from within the company’s ranks, the network provides mobile workshops and seminars designed to address the challenges faced by women and their families that can influence their professional contributions.
Wood says expansion of the AWIT program is likely, pending program evaluation results.
“There is no reason why women can’t work in the construction industry,” says Pinto. “It’s going to take large employers like Aecon to say we are going to recruit.”
LiUNA Local 183 represents more than 52,000 construction workers in the Greater Toronto Area.
Pinto estimates that the training centre has between 6-8% women in its training programs on average. He would like to see 20 per cent of participants in training courses be women.
“Internally we are talking about additional programs for women,” said Pinto. “We have to find the right partner.”
The Aecon Human Resources Department and Wood were both recently named as finalists in the HRD Canada Magazine Awards. The department is nominated for Canadian HR Team of the Year while Wood is in the running for the HR Rising Star of the Year award. The awards will be held in Toronto on Sept. 12.