Government Building: A Glimpse Inside the Trades that Keep our Public Structures Standing
By Holly Fraughton
When you enter the Provincial government’s millwork shop in Dartmouth, you’re met by the sweet smell of freshly hewn lumber and the low hum of the dust collection system, punctuated by the sharp whine of a table saw in the background. It’s an unassuming structure from the outside, but inside, this is a busy, fully functioning mill equipped with all the tools and equipment needed to complete historical restoration projects.
This is just one of the workplaces for the small but impressive team of approximately 50 tradespeople and support staff who are responsible for maintaining and modernizing 2,600 provincially government-owned structures in Nova Scotia, spanning from Yarmouth to Sydney. Tha structures include museums, snowplow sheds, Province House, Lieutenant Governor’s house, all provincial courthouses throughout Nova Scotia, and pretty much everything you can imagine in between.
Their team is broken into three divisions: Electrical, Mechanical, and Architectural.
They handle most of the routine, everyday repairs and maintenance needed on more modern provincially owned buildings, with contractors brought in to assist with larger projects occasionally. They are the team tasked with the upkeep of historic properties, such as the Legislature and Government House in downtown Halifax, which underwent a major restoration in 2009, largely at the hands of the TIR tradespeople.
The three-year project cost approximately $6.25 million and included major infrastructure modernizations, including lighting, communication, air conditioning, fire protection and alarm systems.
As you can imagine, repairing and maintaining buildings that are two centuries old can be a complicated affair.
“You have to duplicate everything that’s there when you tear it apart, and you have to make it look the same. It’s awesome. It’s a challenge, but we get through it,” said Glenn Keefe, Acting Superintendent of Architectural, “Even if we have to duplicate anything like moldings, stuff like that, we get to save it!”
Tim Sullivan has worked for the department for almost 21 years. Today, he’s the Mechanical Trades Coordinating Lead, responsible for six disciplines: sprinkler, plumbing, steam fitting, pipefitting, welding, HVAC and sheet metal. He was part of the team that handled the overhaul of Government House and remembers opening up the walls to find shoes that had been placed inside – an old superstition meant to ward off evil spirits – and old lead coal gas lines, which were used for illumination before there was electricity.
“There was coal dust everywhere!” he recalled.
For tradespeople with decades of experience, like Sullivan and Keefe, it was an incredible experience to see how these historic properties were constructed.
“Even the latticework for the plaster was all hand-hewn at the Lieutenant Governor’s — it wasn’t cut with a saw,” Sullivan said, “The beams we had carbon-dated – 800 years old! So, the shipwrights came off the ship, went into the woods, cut the trees down, hewn the beams down, and built the Lieutenant Governor’s, because all the joists were wooden pegged – it was a time capsule.”
Still, it was a real challenge to bring such a historic building up to modern standards and code, while still maintaining the integrity of the design and character.
“When we went there, all the pipes were exposed. They had drilled holes through the top of doors to put the pipes through for heating, the plumbing stacks were all exposed, so over the years, they had just gone in and butchered the place. Our mandate was to hide all that, to get rid of it, and then bring the building up to modern-day standards. It was a real scope of work,” Sullivan explained, “That was a really interesting project, and we had all kinds of challenges down there – things we ran into, but it was great, because we had a great team.”
A great team.
Gail MacDonald is another member of the team. She’s been working as a Supply Tech for the Architectural division of the department for five years, ordering supplies and equipment, processing invoices, and maintaining inventory, a job that got considerably more difficult during the peak of COVID, when supply chain issues created very real material shortages.
“There was a time that we couldn’t get lumber at all!” MacDonald recalled, “We went through a period where you couldn’t even buy it.”
Fortunately, they maintain a solid inventory of materials in their own facilities.
“We’ve got lots of tools and equipment,” said Sean Flemming, an Electrical Supply Tech, gesturing to a stock room of carefully labeled items behind him.
“The guys will call in materials they need for a job – wire, or pipe. There’s been a lot of price increases in the last couple years, and supply chain issues have been a big problem… it really helped us to have some inventory here to hold us over until the stock came in.”
Flemming has been with the Department for 25 years. He started working for TIR in 1998, just two weeks after the Swiss Air disaster. One of his first projects with the Department was helping to set up a morgue in Shearwater. He’s seen a great deal change over his time in the role.
“When I first started, we used to write gear in a book. You’d issue material and you’d have to write all the prices down in the ledger, add everything up and send it to the girl downtown, and she would enter the cost to the jobs,” Flemming recalled, “Now, when we started with SAP, that got all on the computer system. Basically, the computer keeps track of all that now.”
They also get to source out new equipment: “If something is worn out or we need to replace something, we buy it, or if there’s a new tool out there that will help us do our jobs. We try to find the best pricing we can and buy competitively so we’re not wasting money.”
So, why has he stayed with the TIR team for so long?
“The biggest things: pension, benefits, and pretty good people to work with, most of the time,” Flemming said with a grin. A voice in the background shouts back, “Oh yeah, whatever Sean!”
But MacDonald agrees: “The overall atmosphere here is very welcoming, warm, friendly – it’s just a really great place to work. I think that was the biggest draw, probably, was the atmosphere, to be honest.”
“I’ve been around a few different departments, a few different divisions, and I’ll say this is one of the best, really,” she added.
While there’s no shortage of work to do – they’re currently working on a gift shop renovation in One Government Place, planning a renovation at the 2nd and 3rd floor of the Johnston Building, 5th floor of the provincial building, and turning the lab space at Miller Lake into office space, upgrading all the audiovisual systems at provincial courthouses to allow for virtual appearances, just to name a few of their ongoing projects – these days, there certainly is a shortage of people to do the work.
“With the labour crunch and the grey revolution that’s going on now, it’s getting harder and harder to get trades people,” Sullivan says with a sigh.
It has gotten increasingly difficult to find qualified trades to join their team, partially because of labour market shortages. According to a recent article in The Globe & Mail, Canada could be facing a shortage of 100,000 tradespeople by 2029, with an estimated 257,100 construction workers set to retire by 2029.
Part of the problem has been that for the past few decades, young people have been told they need to go to university to be successful.
“The young generation isn’t interested in going into trades, it’s more technology,” said Keefe, “It’s really hard to get young people to want to be a carpenter.”
Now, Sullivan says, if we want more people getting into trades, the message needs to be “dirty doesn’t mean dumb.”
But the problems recruiting within TIR are also due to their inability to offer a competitive rate of pay with the private sector.
The wages the Province pays some of the skilled trades workers is approximately 40 per cent less in terms of wages. For example, their Carpenters make around $29 per hour, which works out to about $22 per hour once you’ve factored in taxes, benefits and union dues. In the private sector, they make about $35 per hour.
“For years, they got away with that, because there was never a large amount of work here, and people wanted to stay home, so you really had a good labour pool of plumbers, electricians, and carpenters to pick from: they were there!” Sullivan said, “But then everybody was told to go to university over the last 35 years, and now you’ve got 26 cranes in Halifax and you’ve got all these people vying for their talents, and they’re saying, ‘No, I’m not working for that, I’m going to go work over here.’”
With the shortage of skilled workers, there has been a shift towards contracting out more work.
“So now you’re paying $125 per hour for a service call versus $65, and then when that goes sideways, they hide it all. The person who came up the program gets moved horizontally so no one can even find them to say, ‘this is your program, you screwed up, you’re fired.’ That never happens,” said Sullivan, “Give me a job costing and show me how it’s cheaper to contract out versus what it is to bring a person in to pay them a pension and a half-decent wage.”
Contracting out also creates another layer of work for Department staff, as they cannot leave them to work unsupervised.
“It’s great to be able to bring somebody in from outside and be able to put them within the team, and we do have that currently,” said Roger Gauvin, the Mechanical Foreman, “The issue that we have is that for an extended period of time, we are not allowed to leave them alone. They have to be with one of our guys … If we hire somebody, they’re there for 25, 30, 40 years. Bringing somebody on contract, they can be transitioned, depending on whether the company wants them back, or whether or not we’re sending them back because of work shortages, and when we go to reinstate a new position, it’s not necessarily the same person we’ve had.”
Then they have to start the retraining process over again.
Of course, the previous government’s approach to legislating wage patterns and taking away benefits that were already in collective agreements hasn’t helped the situation.
“We lost a lot when McNeil was Premier,” said Flemming, “We didn’t get any cost-of-living increases for like ten years, so a lot of our trades guys are upset about that. They were told when they came to work here that they’d get a Long Service Award: that was taken away.”
Of course, there are perks to working in the public sector, rather than the private sector: pension, health and dental benefits; and vacation. But those seem to matter less to workers now, as they struggle to keep up with soaring inflation.
Keefe has worked as a carpenter for 40 years and has spent the last 18 years of his career working as a Carpenter and Foreman for the Province.
“When I started here, we had three young children, so I got my vacation time, my benefits, and my pension, and that was a draw for me,” Keefe said, “Today, it’s the bottom line: ‘I need money now to buy my groceries and pay for my car.’”
The strict safety standards and quality standards they adhere to within TIR are also a draw for some tradespeople.
“We have a set standard … and our standard tends to be above and beyond plumbing codes and so on,” Gauvin explained, “We tend to bring not only our design, but our actual materials up one grade above what the outside does, and the purpose of that so we are actually looking at a 50 to a 100-year building, not a 20-year building. Most often outside, that’s what they do: they quote things to the lowest cost to them, so they can make a higher profit. That’s typically how things work. So, we tend to step things up.”
Working for the Provincial government as a tradesperson is also unique in that you only really serve one client.
“There are really great aspects to that, because now you’re engaged with the client, you understand what the client’s requirements are … and the relationship works really well,” Gauvin added.
They also offer plenty of opportunities to be mentored and learn on the job.
“The opportunities here for mentoring young people here is probably much superior than it is on the outside, because we allow the latitude for us to be able to do that,” said Gauvin.
“…For the most part, in the industry, we’ve probably got an almost 20-year gap of training. So, what’s happened is that the industry forgot how to train people … Now, especially with the generations that are out there, the new kids that are coming in, they’re working with people who are basically getting ready to retire, so what they want from (the new hires) is for them to do the heavy work. Well, they are in need of diversification. They get that here. We don’t just put them with one person, we put them with multiple people to give them the experience that they need.”
The way forward
One thing is clear: the trades in this province are experiencing the same labour shortages we are seeing in other critical areas, like health care. In the midst of a clear housing crisis, and in the face of massive numbers of retirements, government must turn their attention to once again making the trades an attractive career path, not just for those working with private industry, but for those we rely on in the public sector who are responsible for maintaining and improving the infrastructure that is owned by us all.
“Trades are only going to get worse, because it’s busy out there, and people are retiring. We want to keep the people that we have, because they’re good people, but if you’re not going to be competitive, we’re going to lose them,” Flemming warns.
**Author’s note: Writing this story was a very special project for me, as my father, Fred Fraughton, was the Superintendent of Architectural before he passed away in 2012. This was not my first visit to the TIR shop, and I hope it won’t be my last. I have a deep appreciation for the work that’s done by the incredible skilled trades team at TIR and have no doubt my dad would be very proud of the work they continue to do on behalf of all Nova Scotians.
This article appeared in the Spring edition of The Union Stand.
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