So many tradespeople — whether they know it or not — make positive climate impacts through their day-to-day work.

Take the bulldozer operator in Newfoundland who didn’t think of himself as a strong climate advocate even though he always took care to save topsoil on construction sites. It wasn’t until he was interviewed by climate experts about his work that he realized by saving the nutrient-rich soil, he was also helping keep carbon in the ground and out of the atmosphere, said John Calvert, an academic who researches climate change and building trades.

As a training instructor, the heavy equipment operator now passes this lesson on to apprentices, impressing upon them the importance of not contaminating streams and properly moving and storing topsoil on construction projects.

Canada’s Building Trades Unions (CBTU) is setting out to up the entire building industry’s climate knowledge with a new training initiative focused on the role of the trades in addressing and adapting to climate change.

“I want construction workers to be talking at the dinner table about what they did that day, at work, that's gonna save the planet,” said Lee Loftus, a longtime building trades worker who is involved in the Building It Green project.

“I want construction workers to have a better grasp about the benefits of the work that they do and what it means for the future of their children [and] their grandchildren.”

The idea is to enroll as many trades instructors as possible in a free, short online course on the basics of climate change followed by a more comprehensive in-person training session. These instructors will take that knowledge back to training centres and union halls and pass it on to trades apprentices.

By starting to incorporate climate change into the schooling for trades apprentices, CBTU aims to arm the upcoming generation of workers with the knowledge to help fight against a warming world.

Right now in Canada, building trades curriculum provides apprentices with technical skills that they need to succeed. But it largely misses the connection to climate and the role the building industry has on lowering our carbon footprint, said Calvert, one of the academics involved in the research stage of the project, which kicked off in early 2021.

In the new year, @CDNTrades will start training trades instructors on climate basics so they can pass their knowledge on to apprentices and arm the upcoming generation of workers with the goods to help fight against a warming world.

Greenhouse gas emissions from buildings and homes accounted for 13 per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions in 2021, and reducing the energy consumption in new buildings and retrofitting existing buildings is an important part of meeting Canada’s — and the world’s — climate targets.

Calvert’s research on European jurisdictions found much more precise work and attention to detail is required to build energy-efficient buildings. It requires skilled workers who must first understand the importance of their specific role and how their work interacts with other stages of construction to ensure the end result is up to standard.

If corners are cut and a component isn’t done properly that makes it hard for the next workers to do their job, said Calvert, noting employers are often the culprit with cost-saving, corner-cutting measures. Workers know what to do, but they need to know why it's important. Calvert pointed to the bulldozer operator he interviewed, who grew up hearing his farmer father telling him topsoil is invaluable because it takes 1,000 years just to grow an inch of it.

“If you do it properly and save it, as opposed to just sort of plowing [it] under, you're doing something very valuable for the environment,” said Calvert. This is what the bulldozer operator does, but workers without an understanding of why this dirt is important have no reason to care about handling it carefully.

Knowing your meticulous work “is actually contributing to a better climate gives you a sense of job satisfaction,” said Calvert. For tradespeople who have already completed their training and are fully certified, there aren’t opportunities to learn about the climate connection on the job, he said.

Fuelled by $4.7 million from the federal Union Training and Innovation Program, CBTU’s pilot project aims to parse out the climate impacts unique to each trade and train instructors from all the different trades to disseminate the information within their union.

Lee Loftus speaking to a climate action resolution at the British Columbia Federation of Labour's 2019 convention at Canada Place. Photo by Josh Berson

More than 50 trades instructors were interviewed to inform the curriculum. Many were excited about the initiative and already looking for ways to incorporate the climate question into their work, said Kristina Porter, a curriculum design specialist with SkillPlan. Arming instructors with knowledge of climate basics and accessible educational materials is key. So is helping instructors present the information and navigate difficult conversations. She says it’s no secret “there is a bit of fear” among tradespeople who work on fossil fuel-connected projects and what addressing climate change will mean for their careers and futures.

“It's important to be able to give trainers a way to talk about this in a positive and problem-solving, solutions-based kind of way so that it's not political,” said Porter. Instead of getting mired in climate science and trying to convince people of the threat, Porter recommends instructors approach it like this: “This is a problem. We're people who can solve problems. Let's see what we can do about this.”

Framing the discussion this way makes it easier and less overwhelming to talk about climate change and jobs, said Porter. The shifting economy also brings new job opportunities to the fore, from electricity transmission infrastructure to large-scale building retrofits.

Some people have this perception that construction workers are “redneck, knuckle-dragging, greedy, play-hard-party-hard type of people,” said Loftus. “We're not. The work we do is phenomenal.”

Many tradespeople do more for the climate in an eight-hour shift than most people do in their lives, said Loftus, pointing to the impact of his 48 years of work as a mechanical insulator. This lesser-known trade involves installing insulation around key mechanical components and pipes, which, if done right, does wonders for a building’s energy efficiency.

Starting in 2024, CBTU will take the next step for the multi-year project and roll out a pilot program to recruit union instructors to take the training. Porter is excited to see how it plays out.

“It takes time for people to go through their apprenticeships but once they do, it doesn't take that many years before they can be in these places where they are making decisions [as] a foreman or superintendent at their site,” she said. These workers will have the knowledge to inform those around them and push back when employers want to cut corners on a jobsite.

“When you see your job making a difference in terms of climate change, if that's something that's close to your heart … I think it's something that can make you feel really proud of what you do,” said Porter.

“Of course, not all apprentices care about these things, not everybody on the planet cares about these things,” she said. “But we're hoping to increase awareness and I think with more awareness, more knowledge, people will care more.”

Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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Lesson one:
Turn your idling diesel burning equipment off when not in use.
(even for a few minutes)
Please, that practice is and has been absurd business as usual for way too long.

Completely agree!. I see trucks and other equipment idling for nothing all the time. It gives me anxiety!

Most technical institutes offer programs and field research into passive house and mass timber building techniques, mechanical and electrical support systems for heat pumps, ground geothermal, solar and batteries and so on. Building trades unions could up the ante in cooperation with government to send apprentices to courses in expanded programs as part of an ongoing climate initiative.

Training in skilled trades in new energy conservation and renewable power fields is an honourable pursuit. They are often more affordable and useful to society than PhDs in obscure fields.