With a looming skilled labour shortage predicted in Canadian construction, the Ontario Construction Careers Alliance (OCCA) is hoping to combat the problem by reaching out to high school students across Ontario with the goal of educating them about the many career opportunities available. This is the third of a series of articles that will appear in the Daily Commercial News over the coming months outlining the goals of the OCCA and the impact the alliance aims to have on future generations. This article illustrates how an employer that is dedicated to giving youth opportunities can not only obtain a solid workforce but also help shape the construction industry for years to come.
The hallways of the Steed and Evans office building in St. Jacobs, Ont. are lined with historic photos, telling the story of the company’s evolution.
Spanning one entire wall in the conference room is a mural, painted by one of the employee’s daughters in honour of the company’s 60th in 2013. Holly Clement was working as a traffic control person while going to art school at the time. The mural was her first commissioned piece of work, explains company president Malcolm Matheson.
It depicts scenes stemming from the ’50s, pulled from archived photos, to the operations and machines of today and tells the story of an employee-driven company that was established in January 1953 by Roy Steed and Denis Evans.
But behind the paint and pictures are the deeply embedded roots of Steed and Evans, says Matheson —roots that ultimately
helped shape his life and many others from a very young age.
"I started as a summer student the year I graduated high school. Mr. Evans offered me the job. I started working on a bridge deck with a jack hammer three days later," explains Matheson, who now has over 30 years of experience in roadbuilding, estimating, aggregate and asphalt production, sales and fleet management that he attributes to the opportunity Evans initially gave him. "It had a major effect on my career as I switched career paths in university after a couple years and went into engineering. There are not many jobs at Steed and Evans I have not done," he says.
Matheson adds his progression is just one story, as the company’s leadership has maintained the philosophy of providing opportunities to youth in all aspects of the business.
A vertically integrated company, Steed and Evans ventures inlcude aggregate operations, asphalt and ready-mix concrete plants, and it also provides new construction, reconstruction, pavement rehabilitation, maintenance and concrete services for both the public and private sector.
More than 220 people work for the company in all facets of the operation. Some, like Helder Brasil, started as a general labourer and are working their way up the ladder.
Brasil has worked for Steed and Evans for 13 years, starting at age 20. His father also worked for the company at the time.
"It’s definitely a very family-oriented company. Even guys that aren’t really your family but you work with them 10, 12 hours a day, they become your family," says Brasil, who is now a sewer foreman helping oversee a crew working on a two-year Region of Waterloo reconstruction job that involves putting in new watermains and storm sewers.
As the heavy equipment moves behind him on site, Brasil states there are endless opportunities to grow in construction if given the chance.
"You don’t have to have a college education to grow in this field," he says. "I completed high school but that was it and came out of high school and went into the construction field and now I’m a foreman in a well-established company and hopefully growing further in this company."
Steed and Evans has been taking students from both high school and college for years. Matheson is on the board of the OCCA, formally called the Ontario Civil Construction Careers Institute (OCCCI). The company helped run the OCCA’s first school career day with Jessica Steffler, who is the alliance’s director of career promotions.
"It was a logical fit," Matheson explains. "We had great co-operation from the high schools as well. They thought and still do think it is a great idea. The OCCA is a great program. Getting high school students interested in careers in heavy civil and related industries is golden. We need people."
Currently there are about 12 students working at Steed and Evans. Many come from civil engineering technology programs at Conestoga, Fanshawe and Mohawk colleges but some are also out of high school.
Steed and Evans is also involved in the Infrastructure Opportunities Program (IOP), which was originally developed for university program engineers but was adopted by the company to apply to college programs.
Thaddeus Bassett, 22, was hired as part of the IOP program. He is taking environmental civil engineering technology at Conestoga College and is heading into second year in September.
He says his experience working with a crew has enabled him to see firsthand what being on a job site is like.
"It’s learning how to conduct yourself, just being aware of everything," he says. "It’s kind of cool to see a project from the beginning to the end. I would recommend it for sure. It’s a good atmosphere and you work hard."
But even if you aren’t taking a college program, there are plenty of other opportunities, adds Dusty Clements, a working foreman of an excavation and grading crew who started with Steed and Evans six years ago at 22.
"I came in knowing nothing at all. I worked in factories before, a bunch of jobs, not really careers," he recalls. "I got hired here, and luckily had a really good foreman that taught me everything he knew. Two years in I became a lead hand for a couple of years, and then last year I kind of got thrown in the mix and had to finish a job by myself and it went really well. This year I have my own crew, my own truck, everything."
He says he can relate to students coming out of high school who may not know exactly what they want to do.
"I graduated Grade 12 and had no idea where I was going to go or what I was going to do. I didn’t want to spend all the money on college or university on a program I didn’t like," he says. "Construction didn’t even cross my mind until I fell into it. I got in here and it was like, yes this is something I can make a decent living at. I bought a house when I was 23. I have a house, a Harley and a nice life."
As employers it’s important to give youth that chance, says Paul Sousa, the manager of Waterloo Region Construction and a partner at Steed and Evans.
"It starts at that age. That’s how we find them and that’s how you know whether they get engaged with construction or not," he states. "When I started here in ’94, my very first labourer was a 16-year-old kid, Nelson Feleja. Nelson today is still with us. He runs a crew very similar to Helder. He didn’t complete high school. His father was here, so he’s a second generation Steed and Evans and today the potential is great for Nelson. That’s how it starts. They get themselves engaged and you give them a little responsibility and if they take it on they just grow with it. They just run with it."
And there are plenty of ways to run with a career in construction, Matheson says. Besides being part of a crew operating equipment, driving trucks or doing other construction tasks, he says there’s also opportunities on the aggregates end of the spectrum, be it working in dispatch or in the lab for example.
Madison Lavigne works in the lab at Steed and Evans where aggregate materials are tested for quality and durability and are also sent off for certification.
As she stands in the lab holding a cylindrically shaped mound of asphalt, the 21-year-old describes how she started working for the company in April while also pursuing a firefighting career.
"It (working in the lab) sounded really interesting to me. I was nervous at first. I am one of the few who hasn’t taken this in school. I came into it with an open mind," she says.
"It’s fast paced and I learn something new almost every day. It’s a lot harder to make a road than you think it is."
Kyle Philp also works in the lab and has been with Steed and Evans four years, starting in the scale house.
"The main part that I like about it is the start to finish," he says. "I see it from the barren ground to when it’s done in the asphalt. You see everything really."
He also shares some words of wisdom to youth contemplating a career in the various aspects of construction.
"A lot of people don’t know it’s as broad as it is. Check out all the resources behind it and all aspects to it," he says. "Just dive in."