Susan's Super Citizen Showcase

Monday, December 11, 2006

Construction industry needs more folks like Stu

Stu MacDowell
“Help Wanted” signs hang on the gates of construction sites all over Vancouver. It’s a well-known fact that construction companies are scrambling to find enough workers to keep up with the pace of our booming B.C. industry. But what does it take for a newcomer to break into the business? Does “the new guy” always get razzed by the more experienced workers?

“It depends on the type of personality they are,” says construction worker Stu MacDowell. “If they’re not willing to try, then they’re going to get harrassed until they get chased out. If you’re willing to try and give it a shot and work hard then you’re going to survive. People can see through that – and people in the construction industry are definitely real people. They’re not fake and they don’t like fake.”

In August, 2004, Stu moved to Vancouver from Oakville, Ontario, where he’d been working for a dozen years doing landscaping construction. “I wasn’t a cow – I didn’t cut grass,” he says, with a chuckle. “I came out here looking for a job. I figured construction would be the best way to get a decent-paying job. I had much experience doing all kinds of things, so I put it all together to do what I do now.”

Stu describes his decision to leave high school in Grade 11. “I said: ‘I’ve had enough of this. I’m bored.’ And I went to work.”

He took a job at a courier warehouse and soon became “lead hand on the floor” while also doing the landscaping in summer. At 24, he took a job at a machine shop and became a supervisor within a year. I asked him how he got such a speedy promotion.

“I figure things out very quickly,” he answers with confidence. “And I have an incredible amount of patience. I had a younger brother and sister and had to deal with them. My mom was always telling me: ‘You’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to be patient’ – and she drilled it into my head."

A month after his arrival in Vancouver, Stu had a full time job with Golden Globe Construction, for whom he still works as a deficiency technician. In this role, he fixes all the little details that weren’t completed in earlier phases of a construction project – installing electrical sockets, soffits, flashing, siding, and anything else that was missed along the way.

“With Golden Globe, they’re consistent and they always pay – but some of these people will promise you the world and give you sawdust. It’s good to stick with one company,” he says.

I asked Stu about the range of pay for construction workers.

“The wages have gone up a little bit because of the demand,” he says. “Generally a labourer will start out around 13 or 14 dollars an hour for a non-union company – and it averages between 20 and 30 for anybody else. Ticketed carpenters are making 26 upwards – 26 being the low end for a ticketed carpenter.”

To top up his income, Stu sometimes does weekend projects installing interlocking stone and retaining walls.

“What helps me pay the bills is the side jobs. My job at Golden Globe is enough to survive, but not enough to live. Unfortunately in this province it takes a lot of money to live. You can survive – but for living, you’ve got to put in the hours,” says Stu, father of a baby girl born in October.

Interestingly, the mom of Stu’s child is also a construction worker. Stu and Sarah met on the job – and now, along with their baby and Sarah’s six-year-old daughter, this new family shares a home in East Vancouver.

“I chased her down relentlessly,” he says with a laugh, agreeing with my half-joking comment that he must have had a lot of competition with so many men and so few women on the worksite. "I won the prize - sometimes I wonder why, but I did."

Returning to seriousness, I asked if it “creates any sort of weirdness” when there is a woman working amongst so many men on a site.

“It depends on the personalities of both the men and the women involved. If you get these hard core stick-in-the-mud men who aren’t willing to adapt and accept, then there’s going to be problems. And if the woman’s a militant feminist, then you’re going to have problems too. They both have to be willing to bend and accept,” he says, adding that there are a lot more female construction workers than there were 10 years ago.

When he’s not at work or spending time with his family, Stu can be found riding his downhill mountain bike at Whistler or Mount Seymour.

What does he like most about his job?

“I like the variety – the fact that I get to do different things and go to different places. I’m not stuck in the same spot all the time," he says, describing the sense of pride he gets from a job well done. “Construction can be very satisfying, especially when the job is completed and you stand back and look at your work and say: ‘I had a hand in that.’ It’s a good feeling.”

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