(Vancouver) The face of labour is changing, and the Vancouver Island Highway Project offers a Labour Day lesson for the future, according to a new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Highway construction has traditionally been a male domain. During the Vancouver Island Highway Project (VIHP), however, equity initiatives in training and hiring were unique and stunningly successful. The CCPA study, entitled The Road to Equity, argues that the VIHP represents the first time in Canada that a significant effort has been made to integrate women and First Nations in the work of building a commercial highway.
The study was written by economist Marjorie Griffin Cohen, a professor of political science and women's studies at Simon Fraser University, and Kate Braid, a journey carpenter, author, and instructor at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo.
"There is a lot of public cynicism about government capital projects these days, and much of that is understandable," says Cohen. "But the Vancouver Island Highway is an example of a large-scale capital project that got it right. To date, with most of the project completed, the work has been accomplished within budget and on time. But equally important, this has occurred while meeting the social objectives of hiring local labour and mounting a significant training program specifically for women and First Nations people."
The construction industry in BC has been notoriously difficult to integrate. The workforce representation of women, at 0.3%, and First Nations, at less than 1%, is depressingly low. At peak production periods of the VIHP, however, equity hires reached more than 20% of the workforce.
"The work culture of the construction industry is partially responsible for these poor figures," says Braid, "and the unsystematic ways in which people normally receive training for their jobs has been a barrier to diversifying the workforce. But the VIHP, by focusing on a defined training program and providing support and training for supervisors and co-workers, removed many of these barriers."
The report details how the VIHP's equity initiatives originally encountered some resistance, and then largely overcame these barriers. Many innovative management initiatives were responsible for the project's success, including: centralized hiring of all labour through a single employer, Highway Constructors Limited (HCL); having trainees build a section of the highway; and, most significantly, a contract with contractors and unions that gave priority in hiring to equity employees.
"The VIHP is an excellent model for future large-scale construction projects," says Cohen. "The success of the project shows that governments can, in fact, create positive social as well as economic results when undertaking public projects, a lesson that should not be lost in designing future capital projects."