Aecon project communications manager Paulette den Elzen, recently recognized as a Powerful Black Women in Construction by the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN), says she doesn’t see herself as a mover or a shaker in the construction justice movement but she is ready to step up and speak out if it will make a difference.
Den Elzen, a veteran strategic planner who has worked on public and stakeholder engagement and community benefits programs for the Eglinton Crosstown project, the Gordie Howe Bridge build and now the Finch West LRT project, was honoured by the TCBN during Black History Month in February. She said she knows what it’s like to walk into a corporate setting and have people look past her for her boss, or to show up on a jobsite and realize she doesn’t look like anyone else on the project.
Construction has a ways to go before it can declare success in fighting bias, den Elzen said, but by speaking out as one of the few women and Blacks in the sector, she hopes to encourage young people to consider a career in an exciting and rewarding industry where they have a chance to make a real difference in their community.
“I’m doing this to create awareness that the construction sector is a growing and thriving industry,” said den Elzen. “I want people like me and people of diverse backgrounds to recognize that it has many different areas and provides opportunities for career growth.”
During work stints with the City of Toronto, Infrastructure Ontario (IO) and now Aecon, den Elzen has played a part in numerous successes that have provided a series of career highlights, she said.
I think we need to show the industry in a more fulsome light… You need to appeal to a range of people. And you need to show a range of people.
— Paulette den Elzen
She recalls how with the City of Toronto she participated in a public education campaign that educated taxpayers on the need to replace aging water infrastructure; she was part of the Aecon team bidding on the Howe bridge project that created innovative community benefits programs that are now recognized nationally; and with IO she worked to show small contractors how they could participate in alternative financing and procurement programs.
“Every time we went into a community in Ontario to build, we would find opportunities to bring the small businesses together with the large companies in joint ventures, so that we could speak to each other and identify what opportunities would come up within that particular project,” den Elzen said of outreach efforts with IO.
Working on the community benefits program for the Finch West project as part of the Mosaic Transit Group consortium, den Elzen is able to document her team’s successes. By the end of 2020, there were 31 apprentices and tradespeople hired through the apprenticeship program and 16 professional, administrative and technical workers hired from the community.
“And we’re just getting started.”
She has found it all exhilarating, and so might young girls and Black youths who are casting about for careers.
“I think a lot of people, when they think about construction, it’s perceived as male dominated and just all the bricks and mortar,” said den Elzen. “I want people to understand there’s so much more, especially when you get on to the types of projects that I’ve been fortunate to work on the last couple of decades.
“You need environmental experts, you need people like me who are working in communications and stakeholder relations, you need lawyers, you need accountants, you need people who can buy materials.”
She also wants people who have been in the industry for a long time to create a welcoming environment, so that there’s equality in the workplace for people of diverse backgrounds, “so the industry reflects what our society is.”
Current recruitment programs tend to focus on drawing people to the skilled trades, den Elzen said, but efforts need to broaden.
“I think we need to show the industry in a more fulsome light. Some people are going to be interested in trades, but not everyone is going to be interested in that. You need to appeal to a range of people. And you need to show a range of people.”
As for construction’s struggle to eliminate bias, den Elzen said she has been part of wonderful teams wherever she has worked but “I would say that there are still some issues that need to be addressed. And that maybe companies need to be much more honest about their attempts at inclusivity.”
Her approach to addressing problems, she said, is she has to first determine whether speaking up will make a difference.
“I don’t see myself as an advocate but if we are doing something that’s hurtful or harmful, we should try it to stop it.”
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.