Building BC: Innovation, collaboration and safety amid a pandemic
In episode 5, we speak with Chris Atchison, president of the British Columbia Construction Association about the impact of Covid-19 on the construction industry in British Columbia, as well as their own association. Chris highlights how the recognition of the construction industry as an essential service paved the way for innovation, collaboration and heightened workplace safety.
Safety was never compromised, it was always at the forefront. We had to pivot and make some changes, but March 26, was our milestone day, and it was when we could breathe and when we could say, “okay, now we’ve demonstrated this…It’s now time to double down on everything that we have learned and everything that we have done.”
Click to read the full transcript
Paul: Welcome to the podcast today on behalf of Smart Dolphins I’m Paul Holmes and I’m one of the Vcios here and host of the podcast, and I’m here with Dave Monahan, President of Smart open. How are you today Dave?
Dave: I’m excellent, thank you.
Paul: Great, and joining us today is special guest is Chris Atchison, President of the British Columbia Construction Association. How are you doing Chris?
Chris: I’m doing well, thanks for having me.
Paul: Yeah, this is quite an interesting time. So thank you so much for joining us. I know the BCCA was founded in 1970, so now 50 years old, which is an exciting time under normal circumstances, I guess we talk about that a little bit today, but incredible track record and for those who don’t know the Construction Association mandate is to seek to ensure that BC skilled workforce resources and regulatory environments exceed the needs and expectations of industrial, commercial and institutional construction employers. So really an advocacy group for the construction industry. And why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself Chris, your old at BCCA.
Chris: Sure, Paul so I’ve been in this role for more than three years coming to the BC Construction Association from another provincial association, working on advocacy directly with the provincial government.
The BC Construction Association is non-partisan. We all have representatives, we have members in the industrial, commercial and institutional construction industry.
We came together 50 years ago as the result of four regional construction associations, desiring to have a voice in Victoria, and those four regional construction associations were: the Northern Regional Construction Association, the Southern Interior Construction Association, Vancouver Regional and then Vancouver Island Construction Association. So they are the direct conduit and the boots on the ground, so to speak, for the BC Construction Association and we work in concert, we have a collaborative relationship, and we are their voice to Victoria to help on anything that is going to improve the safety, the workforce culture, the regulatory environment for the members who work very hard every day to build this province. We also have a connection to the Canadian Construction Association, which then therefore links everything down from the local construction association through the provincial organizations and up to the national entity so we have a wonderful pipeline, so to speak, of connectivity through the federal government, through the Provincial Government and down through the local communities, which in this time is so important to have that level of connectivity and communication, and in times of unprecedented circumstances, it gives us a level of communication and camaraderie that it is necessary.
Paul: I think we’ve used the word ‘unprecedented’ on every single podcast we’ve done so far.
Chris: Yeah it’s the most over-used word in the last 12 weeks…for sure.
Paul: In your role as advocacy, one of the, I think, success stories for the industry during this obviously unprecedented time was having construction deemed as an essential service despite being non-medical during the pandemic. Maybe tell us a little bit how that came about. And in hindsight was that the right decision…which I know your answer.
Chris: Yeah, it’s such a moment of pride to be able to look back at what was unfolding in early to mid-March, and I think many workplaces made some decisions towards the middle of March to really pay attention and start to prepare their workplaces to be different to send people home to get them to set up. And when you consider an industry like construction that has almost a quarter of a million people in this province working in construction, over 180,000. They don’t have the option to just go at home and work from home, and that’s not necessarily the point, that’s just an observation about our industry. But when you look at those are the people who are keeping our roads and bridges and hospitals and schools built and safe and up to standard that it became a call to action for a number of industry associations to make sure that we did whatever we could to listen to Health Minister, Adrian Dix, and at the time, a relatively unknown provincial health officer and Dr. Bonnie Henry to adhere to the coming regulatory requirements on how to keep workplaces going. And the construction industry responded with unprecedented collaborative effort to bring everyone together to say, “we’ve got to keep our crews safe, we’ve got to prove to ourselves, we’ve got prove to our teams, we have to prove to the provincial health officer that we can make this work.”
And on March 26, was the date in which construction services in this province were deemed non-healthcare essential. And the time frame leading up to that was very tenuous: would we be sending our teams home? Would our businesses start to go under? Would our businesses need rescuing, like so many other businesses in our society are suffering. And we were prepared for that eventuality, but we are so proud that we were able to maintain an operational level and protect our people. Safety was never compromised, it was always at the forefront and we had to pivot and make some changes, but March 26, was our milestone day, and it was where we could breathe and where we could say, okay, now we’ve demonstrated this, it’s now time to double down on everything that we have learned and everything that we have done, sanitation, better sanitation on-sites, health cleaning, social distancing, information and communication, staying home if your sick. And our members and our industry responded just in such a meaningful way that to this day, we have had no outbreaks on construction sites in British Columbia and the economy and in British Colombia is better positioned to move forward as a result of our response, as a result of the lessons that we were able to impart to others, and now as the rest of the economy starts to open up, we hope that other sectors will look to how we mobilized and how we responded in that time of need to say if we can do it, others can do it too, and here’s how to do it safely and make sure that you protect your workforce.
Paul: We talked about this before the podcast as well. I’m on the joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee for Smart Dolphins. And of course, in the IT industry, it’s a little tongue in cheek to say that: you can strain your finger typing and there’s ergonomics and a few things like that. Obviously in the construction industry there is a lot or danger potentially that you have to mitigate. And I think as a result, people working in that industry really lead the way when it comes to health and safety. So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that in a pandemic that your industry would lead the way in health and safety, it always has, presumably. This was a pivot, but probably having already the infrastructure in place with the various companies that operate, and probably some guidance coming from obviously from the government, but also sort of a galvanization within your industry, is that a good read on my part?
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. And we know as a society that we have our first responders, we have our fire and our police and our paramedics, and they will always have that austerity in our society for being the first responders that they are. And a few years back, we partnered with Emergency Management BC as representatives of the construction industry, to offer up and to position the construction industry as the essential responders in times of crisis, so we were actually looking to label construction again a workforce of almost a quarter of a million. And were at that time considering it in the context of earthquake, Tsumni, fire, flood and saying, “we are the people who are safety trained, we are the people with the protective equipment, we are the people with the big machinery, we are the people with the skills and the know how to take things down to build things up, to clear things away.”
And so when you think about how we were already positioning construction and the opportunities that we had to elevate the sector to be essential and not just taken for granted, I think that that’s the piece we’re trying to avoid, that we’re not just there as a go-to in times of need, we want our industry to be recognized as essential in times of crisis and in times when everything is normal.
So when this happened, I think by extension, our culture of safety, and over the past 20 plus years, there has been a significant investment in our safety methods. Every worksite has safety talks before they go to work in the morning. And so for us to be able to pivot as we were already part way there, we just needed to have a few more directives, a few more tools, and we were okay. The messaging and the hierarchy of the safety officers on-site who really direct and those are the ones who are responsible to make sure people go home safe every day.
It just became a pivot of that conversation, a bit of fear, some people chose to stay away for a few weeks until they knew what was going on, and then when they realized that the work sites had accommodated them, they were willing to come back and contribute again, but there were some work force shortages on sites for a period of time while people stabilized like we would expect anywhere, but construction itself just sort of rose to the occasion, and we haven’t looked back.
Paul: Well, I salute he whole industry. A family member of mine actually owns a construction cleaning company, and I was very worried about her and I had a great conversation with her and she was impressed, I think, at the very least, is the word, just how seriously everybody was taking it and just how successfully people were managing to social distance. So definitely, a third hand, if you will, review, is that the industry has really stepped up and I think no surprise because of that whole history of safety and recognition of the importance of safety. So hats off, I think we should pivot a little bit here and talk about BCCA, your organization as well.
I know you’re there at your office today and have been working there from your office for the whole time, but it was some lonely days I guess, for a while. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about how that’s shaped up in terms of your people and getting people working from home and all that?
Chris: So our offices are here in Victoria, we’re right at the corner of Bay and Tyee, and we have about 20 staff working in our office here, and then we have another 30 or so staff that are positioned regionally throughout the province on a various number of our workforce development programs. And so mid-March, we made the decision to send our team home to work safely from home. The building that we’re in was never designated for complete shut down, I think that they were only went to phase two or three during Covid-19, which still meant we were able to have access. So I still maintained my office here as the BCCA headquarters during the main throws and the early stages of the pandemic, and it was great for me, and actually the biggest adjustment that I’m going have to make is to how to welcome people back into my space. I’ve become accustomed to having 3000 square feet all to myself, but we’re starting to make that transition now and putting all the protocols in place as many associations need to.
So, the team has been exceptional in their transformation, we talked about it for years, about allowing more people to work from home, and I will say with the support of Smart Dolphins, you guys were amazing, and very quickly being able to help our team become comfortable technologically, we were all connected and we never missed a beat really. Without sounding too promotional at this time, it was a great team effort. Our team responded and the Smart Dolphins team stepped up and made sure that every bit of troubleshooting that we needed to attend to was taken care of. We couldn’t be more grateful for that. The only thing is, you’ve done such a good job, how am I going to get all these people back to the office now that they can work from home?
So we have a return to work plan that is scheduled for July 6, but managing different expectations that people have. Our world has changed in the last 12 weeks. Child care considerations are our team’s priority. Those who are caring for who have older parents that they are connecting with and very cautious towards their behaviors, we’re going to provide the upmost flexibility to individuals during this time, so we will probably remain at a skeletal staff here while people are able to remain connected and productive and doing their jobs from home. We as an association to who does the advocacy and does the workforce development programs, does a lot of work with government, and we have the luxury of being able to be productive in those ways and I still go to say, my hats off to those who have chosen the skilled trades, and those who are on sites who don’t have that same opportunity, and they’re out there every day rain or shine, and facing down some fears, and sometimes those fears aren’t their own. And Paul, you alluded to the fact that family member who’s involved in the industry and albeit peripherally, they’re probably more comfortable than you are, and so we feel that sometimes too, it’s that it’s people who are reaching out to me are often parents or siblings or spouses of people who are working on job sites, and I think it’s just an important recognition. We’ve never seen anything like this before where the level of care and concern is overwhelming and it’s inspiring, so we’re thankful that we have the opportunities, and we’re so appreciative of those who are out there on the front lines still building this province.
Paul: You mentioned that your staff, when they went home, were able to remain productive, and I think that’s not a universal theme with a lot of people. Obviously, there’s a lot of challenges just working from home, generally, people get distracted very easily with the goings on, maybe they’re not set up well. They have kids who are also at home, that sort of thing. So maybe you could speak specifically to some of the technology that helped in that regard, and maybe also some specific policies or tools that you maybe gave people to work from home to remain productive?
Chris: Yeah, so I think probably the biggest thing that we have is Teams, and our use of Teams during this time has been. I was completely a late adopter, and our marketing team here had kind of gone out early with it.
Paul: Do you mean Microsoft Teams?
Chris: Yes Microsoft Teams. What it allowed us to do here is that we still have our own look and we still have our external world that connects with us and inudates our inboxes with the communications that we’re accustomed to, but teams has allowed us both to have regular face-to-face contact, I would say in some cases, we’re communicating with faces on the screen and meaningful conversations more often now that people are out of the office, than we could sometimes facilitate getting the right groups together when we were all in the office, and that’s because different travel, different schedules, different daily schedules. So now we’ve got this on our daily calendars, weekly calendars, when we’re all touching base, I think there’s this the flexibility and the culture that I’ve tried to create here also does accommodate for, I know that people are going to have kids in the background or once in a while photobombing a meeting. To me, you have to have the ability to roll with that, I do not expect anyone going through the circumstance that we are right now with Covid-19 that they are going to be able to dial, be dialed into exactly what I need from them, 24/7. But if I can say, you know what, I know that your son or daughter has to be taking classes now online and you’re their teacher, or your their TA, during the window of time, I also know that you’re going to appreciate my flexibility and give me whatever you can when you can and understand my deadlines, and know that we’re all working towards the same thing, and there are other people out there with bigger challenges than what we have, and most of the staff that I have, it’s just so appreciative that we can keep them working, keep them engaged, keep them busy, keep them employed.
That comes back to us in other ways. So unconventional hours, working around their schedules rather than them working around mine. My family situation, I’ve got… My kids are away or they are home now, but they’re university age, so I don’t have to worry about being the TA for my children most of the time, so just flexibility and not being mean-spirited with people who you know are appreciative of the work that they have. And you know that they’re completely capable, they’ve demonstrated that to us for years, so being patient with them, giving them the tools they need, giving them the freedom that they need to be able to succeed is really what we’re holding to right now.
Dave: So you eluded to this culture you’ve been building pre-Covid. And I think that’s really related the success you’ve had, and I think a lot of people have now had a taste of that remote work and work from home environment and thinking about what does this mean for my organization long-term. So yeah, I’m curious how you see that we’re going get through (whatever you want to call this unprecedented stage we are in) then thinking about years to come or you. Are you rethinking anything on that sort of scale in terms of how you’ll run on the organization and organize ourselves?
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the office structure, the physical environment has already changed, we’ve made some physical accommodations here, even not knowing what things are going to look like after July 6. But we’re starting to open up our space, we’re starting to consider having more desks that are available for people to schedule. I think we’re using Microsoft Teams now they have a component called Shifts. And so we’re contemplating having people book in when they want to come into the office so that they can work from home, but now schedule a shift, and so if we set our maximum capacity in the interim at seven people that we want in our space down from a total of twenty max, then people are knowing, okay, I’m here regularly, so is our reception office management position, and people will schedule around that and they’ll slot them in and if they don’t make one of those shifts, then we expect them to be working from home. So, it just creates this new flexible. We know that there are people that want to come into the office, they want to get out of their house from time-to-time, but they also know that they need to be there most of the time. And just an interesting side note is that…so I mentioned, I’ve got two staff that are now back in the office, one came back to the office right away and adapted and just needs to be here and this is where she will be most productive and she will thrive and she’s been invaluable. And then I have an individual who I’ve worked with since I’ve been here, who’s been with the organization more than 20 years, who was chomping at the bit to get back. He was totally out of his comfort zone, so we’re working from home, but had adapted and he came back into the office, and after two days, he says, I’m not quite ready yet and needed to go back home, now we’ve staggered his work, his schedule to be three days a week or two days a week, whatever it’s going be. And I think that any employer needs to understand that it’s not going to be a cookie-cutter approach as people start to re-merge. Their lives have changed as much as our office culture is going to need to change. So everything is on the table and things that we weren’t even willing to consider before Christmas, and when we were talking about different policies and accommodations, now it’s all back open for discussion and I actually am excited by what that might bring.
Dave: Me as well. And how see the shift and social connection and the serendipitous kind of conversations that happen in the hallway, these are the types of things that we’re talking about as well. We’re very much in the same place.
Chris: Yeah, so in my role, my travel schedule, and my colleagues in other associations as well, we would see each other six or seven times a year in Banff, Toronto, in Calgary in Vancouver and Kamloops. We were travelling an incredible amount, we all have significant travel budgets. So first and foremost, everyone is not certain exactly how that will play out over a period of time, but for now, we are connecting virtually, we are having things called UN-conferences where we’re plugging in doing different things. The amount of innovation that we’ve seen to fill a void that has been created by travel limitations has been both mind-blowing and makes you go, “why were we scampering through airports, making connections, just to go to Calgary for a two-hour meeting?”
So the amount of thoughtfulness now that I think will go into creating travel schedules, and even if it is you should be there. Really? Should we? Is that going to be essential? I think the way we think about our discretionary travel and what it means now to be of. This technology has been here for a while, and we’re using it to be completely on a functional, productive.
Now that said, I think that there is going to be a bust loose time when we have a vaccine or when we are out of the dark, people will want to go and have that physical connection and those networking opportunities, but I think that that will be short lived, and I do think that we will come back to a point where we need balance, we need reason, we’ve got the tools and the resources at our fingertips and we have responsibility to manage budgets, and that is for an association world, it’s not all about just getting out there and shaking hands and networking in the hallway. You can get a lot more done sometimes when you’re at your office, whether that be in an environment like this, or being productive at home, and looking after what matters, and that’s the people you serve.
Paul: I know working in the IT industry, one of the things I love to do is go off to conferences and meet all sorts of strange and interesting people and learn about stuff, and hear compelling speakers and stuff. And the conferences online can be great too, but it is a different experience. So I for one, do look forward to that one day when we can do more of the physical thing, again, it’s different, right? You can get the business you need done using the tools, but there is something about people being together in a room and I think as human beings we need that a little bit too, right?
Chris: Yeah, I totally agree Paul. I think that when it comes to the conferences, I think it will allow us to be more selective, and it will allow the conferences to be built because I do agree that there are certain conferences that were on my can’t miss list that I am missing because I’m not going to.
Paul: Let’s talk about those actually. Construction month was April, right? A little different this year. You obviously had your annual conference and your 50th anniversary, so you had some events plan that happened a little differently. So how did that pan out?
Chris: So Construction Month, this was our third annual Construction Month. So we’ve been getting proclamations from the province of British Columbia that April every year is construction and skilled trades month, so when everything went sideways towards the end of March, we made the call to go ahead with Construction Month. We had a number of initiatives that were planned. We would always do a contractor’s breakfast theme partnering with the regions, we obviously had to put that on hold. But we found other ways to celebrate, we visited job sites that were still operational. We gave out Starbucks cards and Tim Hortons cards and showed some appreciation. We had lots of social media presence talking about our workforce development programs and the importance. It was good that construction by that point had been deemed essential in the province. So we were able to build a ground swell of a lot of pride about what was going on. Now you mentioned it was our 50th Anniversary gala that was scheduled to be held here in Victoria, and we had to pull the plug on that as a number of large events also had to cancel as well. So it was our 50th anniversary, one to be proud of, we had many of our past chairs coming, many former board members and contributors, long-term members, and we’ll find another way to celebrate when the time is appropriate. We’ve turned 50, that’s the big thing when we celebrate it, that…that’s to be determined.
Paul: Right, you will have a big party later.
Chris: I think one of the other initiatives that came forward this year as we were looking for ways to celebrate in construction and skilled trades month was the Lunch Box Challenge, and this was an initiative that came out of Scott Construction, a very prominent member of ours in the Lower Mainland area. They had this idea that they saw how the food services industry in this province was suffering more than more than many other industries were and definitely more than construction was. And so they had this idea of having construction sites that were in operation buy lunch for their crew from a local establishment that needed the business quite frankly, and so they created this lunch box challenge and they challenged us to participate as well. And so we accepted the challenge, and it was a great moment during April where myself and a couple of members of my team, we organized a lunch from a local Mexican restaurant, and we all took of this food down and fed 60 to 70 workers on a site right on the corner of Wharf and Government and safe social distancing, lots of great stories, very, very proud construction month t-shirts that we handed out, hard hat stickers. And this crew was just so appreciative of the acknowledgement, they were humble, they were doing good work quietly, they were working with their hands in the elements, but they were respectful of the new conditions. And it really was a powerful moment and it was Banyan Construction locally, and then they paid that lunch forward to another site later on that week, and so the Lunch Box Challenge was really something that we are working with Scott Construction with now to make it a fixture, it was so popular and so meaningful because it made it more than just about the construction industry, and it really showed a sense of community and across this province in every region, many communities participated, and it was construction’s way of giving back during its own month.
Paul: That’s great.
Chris: Yeah, it was a good story and one that we were very proud to be associated with.
Paul: There’s another initiative that I wanted to ask you about as well, The Builders Code Initiative. Can you tell everybody what that’s all about?
Chris: Yeah, thank you for asking. The Builders Code is a new workforce development resource that started just about two years ago now, and it was aimed at increasing the retention of skilled tradeswomen on job sites, and we mobilized a group of about 125 tradeswomen who very quickly educated us and said, “don’t make this about us, we don’t need another target on our back on the work sites.” And so very quickly, Builders Code became about changing the culture of the construction industry of one that is more accepting of underrepresented groups, our workforce is about 95% male and largely white. And we’re trying to provide the education and the resources to the employers through a lens of safety and productivity that will allow them to understand the benefits of changing the demographics on their worksite for the future. And so it’s very appropriate in today’s day and age, in light of what we’re seeing happen not just with Covid-19 and safety, but also with racial bias and racial injustice, and we as an industry have been working at this for a while, we have a ways to go, but we’re ahead of the curve in many ways, in sort of the resources that we’re putting forward. So there’s a builder’s code pledge, there’s training resources, there’s worksite policies that we’ve developed that are free to employers, there’s a number of fantastic partners, WorkSafe BC, the BC Construction Safety Alliance, the industry training authority, Ministry of Advanced Education Skills and Training, are all leaning into the Builder’s Code to try to understand that we’re trying to make work sites that traditionally haven’t felt inclusive, to make them acceptable for anyone who wants to work there, and now that we are an essential, labeled essential in this province, we want to make sure that we’re not only essential in name, but we are essential to anyone in any community that wants to be part of us, we want that. And so builders code, it has something for everyone, and everyone has something to learn. And in Construction Month, we launched a new app for crew, for the crews on sites. It has 20 different scenarios, it’s gamified, and we were a little late in getting it out, but perfect timing in Construction Month because we wanted to add one Covid-19 scenario where one of the characters shows up for work, feeling a little bit under the weather and is quickly admonished. It’s called a ‘Cool or Tool’ app because the slogan that goes along with builders code is, don’t be a tool. So we are trying to add a little bit of levity to a very serious subject that has some characters, it’s got a hammer, it’s got a wrench, it’s got some carpenters glue and a screwdriver that are these characters who are in these situations that are either good or bad, and if they’re bad, we’ll call the appropriate tools, we’ll say don’t be a tool. So we’re having a lot of fun with it. I would encourage anyone to go and check out the builder’s code website to take a look at, it’s just builderscode.ca and they can see the resources that are available to them.
Paul: Is that app on Android or iPhone app?
Chris: Yes, it’s downloadable through the App Store.
Paul: Okay, awesome. Well, that sounds really neat. Yeah, so it’s ‘Cool or Tool.’
Chris: ‘Cool or Tool.’
Paul: That’s great. That’s really inspiring and where timing of the state of the world today and so important obviously that we’re all learning so much right now. So the big picture here, what are the, I guess, what are the big takeaways from this whole experience with this pandemic, what are I guess the things that you learned that are going have some lasting effect? We talked obviously a little bit about how the workplace has changed, but were there some big lessons that are going to resonate for a while, maybe some silver linings a few things obviously for your industry or more generally…good things that have come out of this otherwise horrible situation?
Chris: Yeah, I think when I think back to what was putting us on the edge of being deemed essential or being shut down. I think the innovation that employers and the sector being able to innovate and just being able to be a bit better in some regards. And I would say that through our experience with Builders cCode, when we’re talking about changing the culture of eliminating bullying, hazing, harassment, there was also discovered an opportunity to improve on the hygienic side of the construction sites. So maybe some of the reasons that people were choosing to bypass our essential industry is one of choice, or getting into it, and then deciding it wasn’t for them was because of the lack of hot water or sanitize stations or cleanliness. And so we’ve really started to ramp up the pressure on work sites and government-funded projects as well, to make sure that this isn’t something that we can retreat from now, once we come out of this, we still need to demand a certain standard for the workers, and those workers are going to need to continue to push for that higher standard themselves. So I think the hygienic safety is going to be one that is incorporated into our lexicon and into our toolbox going forward. I think that that’s a silver lining that that might seem a little bit juvenile right now, but it’s meaningful in a sector that is often prided itself on asking for less and just doing more and getting through the day and going home. It’s not good enough anymore. And so we’ve really, I think, found this was a catalyst for a better future in that regard.
There’s always been a number of innovators in our sector that have embraced technology, and I think that this will continue to allow us, as we see with crews being able to get messaging from supervisors in different ways, being able to track certificates on their phones, being able to have communication and separation at the same time. I think productivity is going to take a little bit of time to recover from this because there is going to be some accommodations made on work sites to allow for scheduling or the separation of trades on sites, and it’s going to take more time to complete projects. So how do we embrace technology to bridge some of that gap? And I alluded to something we might be using in the office that has to do with our own schedules well work sites, are going to need to work a little bit more about that. You’re not going to be swarming over work sites for the next year like ants just waiting for your turn to work on a project. So I think productivity and scheduling innovations we’re going to see them re-emerge.
Paul: You’ve made a really good point. And so on a macro level, would you see maybe the number of work sites might be larger say two years down the road, and then just a little bit slower to completion, or do you think technology can bridge the gap entirely?
Chris: There’s two issues in play, I think contracts going forward, we need to expect in this interim phase that some projects that were issued a year ago, you have a schedule and you think they’re going to take X amount of time now really, they’re probably going take more time and when you add more time, you might add more money. So there needs to be this willingness of the partners, whether you’re a public or private owner, you need to be able to work with the construction industry to avoid any forcures or collapse of contract, you want to be able to have the dialogues in a productive way to say, “now that we know what we’re dealing with.” In some cases, we don’t exactly know what we’re dealing with, we have to expect that it’s going to take a little bit more time, and it might cost a little bit more to do it. So the communication level between the contracting community and the owners, it needs to be heightened for those projects that are underway right now, for those programs that are a shovel ready. BC has an exceptional reputation right now of being understanding that the last thing that they want to do is compound a problem.
So we want to continue that. Our job as an advocate will be to make sure that the provincial government, whoever is working on those projects is willing to listen, what are the barriers that we are facing now that we didn’t have three months ago, and to make sure that we do everything to avoid complex legal implications that are going to really undermine a project’s ability to succeed. At the end of it, we are stewards for accountable use of the public dollars and we know that the businesses need to make money in order to be sustainable, to employ the people that they do and bid on more projects to build the province, so it’s a very complex. But there needs to be dialogue because we’re going into a phase now where things are slightly different, it’s not business as usual, things will take longer and they will cost a little bit more, so we need to be reasonable and we need to factor that in at all stages of the procurement process.
Paul: Do you feel like that’s beginning to happen, are you optimistic that the players are all going to see the big picture the way that you’ve outlined it?
Chris: Yeah, I am optimistic. And in British Columbia I am. I think the leadership demonstrated by this provincial government during this crisis has given us confidence to say, for these shovel-ready projects or these projects underway, there are a number of people who were talking with, whether it’s the Ministry of Transportation, Ministry of Finance that understand that we’re working with them.
Chris: We’re all shoulder-to-shoulder on this right now, and I will say that that’s not the same in some other jurisdictions, we’re hearing from some of our counterparts across the country, that that same willingness to listen, that same willingness to share risk isn’t there. And when it all comes back at the end of the day is about a willingness to collaborate, a willingness to share risk. I don’t want to see any construction company lose money or go out of business because they haven’t been able to make what otherwise could have been a manageable situation work with a funder. So we will work with those to make sure everyone’s being reasonable, and everyone has to understand that the pain needs to be shared, and there is no tolerance for a risk transfer to any one party in a situation like this. We all need to come to the table willing to share the pain.
Paul: So if your members are struggling with that, is your organization one they can reach out to help get some resources, to get some advocacy. Do you see that as part of your role?
Chris: Absolutely, yeah, ours and the regional construction associations. Very early on in this process, we started to issue construction briefings or Covid-19 briefings. I think we’re up to 32 of those briefings in a couple of months, where they give our members and the members of the regional construction associations and industry at large, information on what some of the stimulus programs are, what programs are coming from Ottawa, what programs are coming from the province, it gives legal advice on contracts, it talks about some generic things around Covid-19 as well. So we’ve really captured a resource page that any member, anyone in the industry at this point, can just go to and find what they’re looking for, and we do give some advice on contracts and the way that these contracts need to be respected during this time, from legal counsel as well.
Paul: So it’s going to be a different future, but I get the sense from you, Chris, ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s a very positive future for the construction industry, and obviously the building of the province. Is that a fair assessment? Are you cautiously optimistic of the future, where would you sort of position yourself?
Chris: Yeah, I would say I’m inherently an optimist. I think that just given this time, I think that I will remain a cautiously optimistic. I’m so proud of the industry right now, and then the future does look solid for the industry, but we don’t really know. We don’t really know where we’re going with Covid-19 and BC has been relatively and the island has been relatively unscathed and really well-managed during this period of time, and I really don’t want to take that for granted, I want to make sure that we’re doing the little things right, that we continue to. Now is not the time to relinquish some of these best practices that we’ve introduced and stood by, now is the time to really to apply continued pressure on the work sites to make sure that we stay safe, put the safety of the workers at the forefront, continue to build a strong culture, and with that culture is going come strong membership, more people wanting to work in the sector, there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done with the green movement in this province, the clean BC, the retrofits, the LNG Canada Project, Kitimat TransCanada Coastal GasLink. There’s so much building to be done in British Columbia that it is going to need a healthy workforce, and it’s going need a healthy investment, and it’s going to need safe-minded contractors who are professional, have a lot of integrity, and who belong to our associations, and you know. So I am cautiously optimistic, very optimistic long term, but in the short term, just like other sectors, we will experience our setbacks and we’re real to that and we have to be there to support the industry as best we can.
Paul: Well, Dave, I don’t know about you, but I learned a whole ton today.
Dave: This is great.
Paul: This has been very insightful. It’s interesting because I’ve had that periphery view through my relative that works in construction cleaning, and so I know bits and pieces about the industry, obviously, we see the results of what the industry does as buildings and roads go up around us. Wow, just a lot of great insights today, Chris, so thank you so much. Dave, do you have any other thoughts or questions?
Dave: Yes, this is ultimately what we wanted to do on the podcast today was to get this insight into this industry that’s helping leading us through this challenging time. I think a lot of people are also sort just thinking macro, where were we going? So maybe stepping out of the industry itself, I think you have an interesting perspective to maybe speak to that sort of demand that might be related to the industry. Can you anticipate any of that? People talking recession, can you speak to some degree of that happening?
Paul: Do you have a crystal ball?
Dave: Crystal ball, yeah, tell us what’s going happen.
Chris: The overall outlook is pretty grime. And I think we’ve been insulated a little bit from that in British Columbia. Although in my conversations with the Business Council of BC and the participation in hearing what’s happening in other sectors, I think construction has been insulated even more from the realities of other sectors, and so I don’t take for granted where we are, and I think there’s a lot of work to be done, but I also know that the experience that we’re living, in able to maintain some level of operations sort of masks (for my own experience) what the realities of other industries are truly experiencing. So I think the best response that we can have is to be a as healthy and as robust and as confident as we can be, to make sure that we are doing our part to lead in any new development, finishing any projects that are underway, maximizing the dollars that are coming in from the federal government or private investment, and just making British Columbia as much as a leader in any sort of economic response and recognizing that it hasn’t always been that way for construction and that we can’t slow down and wait for everybody, but we can be a willing partner to help and lift everybody up. And I think just a small thing like we did with The Lunchbox challenge shows the level of humanity that we have and knowing that, okay, we want more and more projects because we have to keep building communities, putting paychecks into the hands of workers who can help stimulate other parts of the economy, so while it looks bleak, I have to hang onto what’s working okay for us. And I think we can be a bellwether for the rest of the nation, and a lot of our colleagues in Ontario and Quebec, even Alberta, are looking to us and saying, “we’re doing something right” and they’re doing a lot of things right, but we seem to be putting all of the pieces together, whereas they might be on their heels in some other ways right now.
Paul: Well, thank you so much. You’ve been listening to Chris Atchison, the President of the British Columbia Construction Association. Chris, we really appreciate you being here today and just some great insights and a tough job you have ahead of you there, and just hats off to you and obviously the whole industry for its leadership during this difficult time. And if you’re listening to the podcast right to the very end, thank you. And we do welcome feedback. Any final thoughts from you Dave?
Dave: Yeah that’s it, thanks again Chris and Paul.
Chris: Thanks so much for having me guys.
Paul: Alright take care.