Research shows that HVAC trades will be the most in demand across Canada between 2022 to 2050. Ensuring net-zero success requires guaranteeing their availability.
As governments and jurisdictions across Canada examine different strategies to address energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions reductions, the vertical infrastructure across the country is being looked at for its emissions-reducing potential.
Today, Canada’s built environment — more than 16 million dwellings and close to 500,000 commercial and public buildings — generates between 13 to 18 per cent of direct greenhouse gas emissions and represents the third-highest source of emissions in the country. In some major metropolitan areas, buildings may even represent the greatest source of emissions.
This, combined with the median age of vertical infrastructure now nearing 40 to 50 years, means the built environment is at a critical stage when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing energy efficiency.
The Government of Canada has set ambitious targets for the built environment, and in July 2022, released the Canada Green Buildings Strategy Discussion Paper highlighting its goals: a net-zero emissions and climate-resilient buildings sector by 2050, and a 37 per cent emissions reduction by 2030.
For Canada’s mechanical contracting sector, the industry’s skills, technical expertise and capacity will all be essential to achieve these ambitious goals.
The critical role of the mechanical sector
With space and water heating alone accounting for 78 per cent of all emissions in a building, the role of mechanical systems and the mechanical sector is significant. Any efforts to achieve net-zero or reduce emissions from a building will require engagement from the mechanical contracting sector, from design to installation to service, repair and maintenance.
As an illustration, the Canada Green Building Council, in its recent Green Retrofit Economy Study, noted the mechanical systems in the built environment will have multiple pathways to help achieve increased energy efficiency, primarily through electrification.
This would include the installation of dedicated air to water heat pump systems for hot water heating, heat pump systems for heating and cooling, or the installation of energy recovery ventilators for ventilation systems.
Of course, there are several factors to be considered when looking at increased energy efficiency, including the type of building and its occupants, the capability of the electrical grid to meet required demands, and, in the case of retrofits, the age of the vertical infrastructure. Ultimately though, it will be the mechanical systems that will play a fundamental role in achieving energy efficiency improvements.
Creating a highly skilled workforce
At the same time, improving efficiency in the built environment will undoubtedly require a larger and highly skilled workforce, as new technologies and a greater workload for the industry will lead to a greater demand of skilled workers in the mechanical contracting sector.
“Decarbonizing buildings and upgrading buildings to make them energy-efficient and climate-resilient requires specialized skills,” notes the federal government’s Canada Green Building Strategy Discussion Paper.
People working in related trades or professions will need to be trained on the use of new technologies and equipment, while at the same time enhance their skills to keep pace with evolving construction demands.
In particular, the mechanical trades will be critical in both new construction and retrofits. Taking retrofits as an example, the Canada Green Building Council estimates HVAC trades alone (plumbers, gasfitters, steamfitters, pipefitters, and air-conditioning mechanics) will be in the highest demand across Canada, with anywhere from 150,000 to almost 450,000 full-time person years required between 2022 to 2050.
Other estimates have suggested the green building market could support close to 1.5 million direct jobs by 2030.
Given the amount of work and number of years required to decarbonize the built environment through to 2050, skilled trades in the mechanical sector should continue to provide long-term and predictable work for many Canadians.
With that said, there are capacity challenges that lay ahead, particularly with respect to skilled workers and training.
The labour market for the skilled trades is already particularly tight across the country, with the supply of workers in the near-term already being a challenge.
Increased demand on the mechanical contracting sector, as well as ongoing retirements of key personnel, will continue to put a strain on the industry across Canada. Where these workers will come from remains to be seen, which will need to be addressed as part of any strategy moving forward.
At the same time, training for new technologies and the upskilling of workers will also be a challenge. The skills and training necessary in the mechanical sector can take several years of on-the-job training, which means an investment in personnel today to build capacity for tomorrow. This, combined with the new technologies and equipment needed for increased energy efficiency, means a greater need for both training and trainers across the country.
Success will require cross-sector collaboration
Ultimately, the move to decarbonize Canada’s vertical infrastructure will require an “all hands” approach. With so many stakeholders involved in this shift, there will need to be continued collaboration on strategies and techniques to meet the objectives outlined by municipal, provincial and federal jurisdictions across Canada.
Given the mechanical contracting sector will play such a significant and leading role in this transition, it must also have the proper tools and support from public and private owners, policymakers, and a close collaboration with consultants and suppliers throughout the industry supply chain.
A long-term and predictable plan will also be critical. If contractors have a sense of the type of work and quantity of work in the pipeline, they can make the appropriate investments in training and people to ensure capacity is in place.
These supports, combined with ongoing collaboration with industry and trade associations, can help ensure the mechanical contracting sector is well-prepared in the transition to a more efficient built environment.
Ken Lancastle is COO of the Mechanical Contractors Association of Canada. Send Industry Perspectives Op-Ed comments and column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.