Changing Toilets, Changing Lives with Marc Soberano
The construction industry has a massive impact on the Canadian economy and faces a significant labour shortage At the same time, there are people struggling to overcome socially structured barriers to employment. What if construction companies hired and trained these people? Tim talks with Marc Soberano, Executive Director of BuildingUp, about this win-win solution.
We’re going to speak with Marc Soberano from Building Up. His mission is to create a real pathway for individuals in Toronto that are experiencing barriers to enter apprenticeships and careers in the trades. Marc is the Executive Director of Building Up. He graduated from Richard Ivey School of Business, canoed across Canada, and understands the untapped transformative powers of construction. Marc combines lessons learned from life in the woods with a people-first outlook to lead his organization towards his vision.
Building Up links business needs to community needs and acts as a vehicle for win-win partnerships. I’ve got a lot of energy in my way of thinking about this. The construction history has a massive impact on the Canadian economy. Yet, it’s staring down the barrel and having a significant labor shortage. At the same time, there are people in Canada struggling to find their place and overcome socially structured barriers to employment. What if construction companies hired and trained these people? It’s a win-win and it takes tremendous pressure off the Canadian social system. Marc, how are you? It’s great to have you on the program?
I’m doing great. How are you, Tim?
I’m doing awesome. It’s been a little while since we connected and we’re going to have a lot of fun here. You’re doing great things in Toronto and I want to hear some more about it. I was struck when I met you for the first time on this whole story about canoeing across Canada. What’s that all about? Can you share that?
Prior to getting into Building Up, I was spending most of my time taking kids out on canoe trips and fell in love with life outside of the world as we know it. One day, a friend of mine that I did that work with said to me, “What if we didn’t go back and guide this summer? Instead, we did our own trip and we canoed across Canada. We retrace the Canadian Fur Trade Routes together.” We got a crew together and made it happen. I was like, “It sounds like a deal.”
Getting that organized and we ended up raising a bunch of money to send kids to camp that otherwise didn’t have that opportunity. We got all these sponsors on board and I found that the adventure of planning that adventure was something that excited me. It was starting to build momentum around something. We were getting a lot of attention for this. We were on the radio, TV, and we were on every route store across Canada. There was all this energy surrounding it and it was this thing where we wanted to do something that I wanted to do and cared about and saw the world get behind it. I had started to get this feeling that that might be something that I’d like to do when this trip ended.
While we were paddling across Canada for 120 days with six people in one boat never further than 25 feet away from each other, I spent a lot of time thinking about the world that we had separated ourselves from. I identified that it is hard but it’s possible to start a business. If you think about a typical street in any city, it’s lined with businesses. I thought to myself, “If all these people could do it, maybe I could too. Maybe I could do it in a way that I care about and have this business contribute to the values that are most important.” That was where the seed of Building Up was born.
We’ve got a lot of energy around this idea of business as a force for good and I’ve spoken about it a few times. It’s this idea that businesses shouldn’t exist to make a profit. At the end of the year, you’ve got a profit and you’re going to go cut a check to a charity and feel good about it. What if the business model addresses societal needs? That’s an interesting concept that we quite enjoy on Chandos. As a B Corp, we think that we have a business model that in many aspects starts to address some needs in society. How do you do that with Building Up? What’s the business model? How did you get started, Marc?
I like the way you framed it up there, Tim, because one thing I often say at Building Up is, “In most organizations, you train and employ people to run a business.” In our case, it’s flipped that and we run a business in order to train and employ people. Building Up is a nonprofit contractor and you don’t often hear those words next to each other. The idea is, what if we could take on construction projects, renovation projects, labour projects, and use the work as a vehicle to train and employ people with barriers to employment?
We’re based on some work that’s happening in Manitoba. What intrigued me there was they saw that there were tons of energy efficiency upgrades that needed to happen within affordable housing buildings. These energy retrofits were not only going to be good for the environment, but they were going to be great for the housing provider because they’re using less utility saving money. They took it one step further and said, “When we bring in contractors to work in housing, a lot of the skills and income that can be generated from those projects is going to leak out of these buildings. The same way the energy has been leaking out.”
They decided to start something like Building Up, a nonprofit business called BUILD, that trained and employed the residents of Manitoba housing, to do retrofits in the buildings, save the housing provider money on the utilities while getting these people working and learning. That appealed to me so we got in touch with them. We started getting mentorship from them and got it gone here in Toronto and we went building to building. I always say that when I look at Toronto, I don’t see buildings, I see vessels for toilets. We would go around and we would change all the toilets, showerheads, and faucet aerators to new ones that use less water. That saved money and used that as a way to have one plumber training a group of eight individuals from the city experiencing barriers to employment to get into the trades.
Since then, the work that we do is expanded. We do all the different widgets that we’re training people on. It started with the toilet, but it’s expanded from there. The whole goal is to then use this work as a way to get people into construction. Another unique thing about our business is most businesses do everything they can to reduce turnover, but we do everything we can. Our goal is 100% turnover. What we’re trying to do is take people that are otherwise not in a position to get into the trades, train them up, get them positioned to be a great hire for the industry, move out, start their apprenticeship with other companies, creating space for us to do that with new people and start the process again.
From my perspective on that, Chandos is a general contractor. It probably does about 10% of the work on-site with its own forces, and the rest is subcontracted. The huge opportunity here is to engage with organizations like yours and for us to call you up and say, “We need fifteen labourers. We need some carpenters, and we have this scope of work that we need to do in a few months. Can you help us?” It’s as simple as that, isn’t it? Do you want to maybe unpack how user-friendly that whole exercise can be?
One thing I learned early on when I was starting to learn more about workforce development, which is the idea of preparing people for the labour force, was the most successful training programs in Canada and abroad engage the sector in their training. They’ll go to the corporations like Chandos and say, “What are your HR challenges? What is it that you’re looking for in an employee and how can we use our training program to prepare people to exactly fit the gap that you’re looking to fill in your organization?”
We’ve learned a lot through that, we’ve learned that 90% of the jobs and construction require a driver’s license so we better make sure that our training program has a driver’s license component into it. We’ve learned what level of maths is required for someone to be able to read a measuring tape? What are the things that these employers will need? How can we prepare people that haven’t had access to this training in the past to be ready for exactly that?
We don’t waste time with training that isn’t something that our employers need and we focus on preparing people to be work-ready, punctual, ready to learn and understand the expectations of the industry. With where we’re at now, we’re having about 1,000 applications for this program every year. The idea that there aren’t people that are looking to get into the trades, that’s a hard one for me to swallow based on being tapped into the community, and seeing how these opportunities can be seen as a way out for many people that are struggling.
The narrative is all too common in the construction industry is it’s difficult to find the people that you bring into the workforce, and/or the industry isn’t prepared for that because of the social support that’s required to be successful in that. The reality is, there are organizations like yourselves, where it’s as simple as picking up the phone like the way that we pick up the phone to Labor Ready and get great people.
What happened in my personal story with this was, I was going to be in a cardboard box on the street if I didn’t have a chance. Chandos gave me a chance and I’ve worked here for a couple of years. People are looking for a chance. When you give them a chance, they come to work with a big smile on their face. They have a loyalty there that you don’t see in other employees. There’s this strong personal connection to the organization that’s given them a chance.
It’s been our experience that people who come to us through that background perform at the highest levels in the organization when you give them the support early days so they can advance. The opportunity here is not for general contractors to hire people through organizations like Building Up. The greater opportunities for general contractors to help their subcontractors be aware of the opportunities that are out there and the fact that organizations like Building Up exist.
Chandos has 500 employees across Canada, but we’re only about 15% of the total workforce on our projects. We’ve got thousands of people working on our job sites across Canada every day. Most of them are provided through our subcontractors. That’s a huge opportunity not only for us to hire people and building up ourselves, but to work with our trades and dare I say, make it an expectation with our trades that are engaged with organizations like yours. Your comment about 1,000 applications a year, I suspect that’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s a huge opportunity to drive change in the industry and society. I’ve got a question for you around the early years. Can you share some of those stories and what were the barriers that you encountered as you were getting going?
The early years were a journey and I had a lot to learn. I didn’t realize what I was getting into, and I’m happy that I got into it and how much I’ve learned. First of all, from the purpose perspective of what we’re trying to do, I learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t about getting jobs, getting people working, and finding them other work opportunities. What I learned was that this term barrier to employment that I’ve heard thrown around is a good term for what it’s trying to say. There are actual barriers for certain individuals to get employment and in order to move on and to build a career, those barriers need to be addressed and they need to be supported and work through.
For example, I remember working with one guy in the early going, and we were trying to prepare him to take this aptitude test to get into a union and start his apprenticeship. The aptitude test involves a whole bunch of math questions. I remember going through the exercises with him going through some sample questions and we got to a question that seemed to me, when we jumped through like, “What is 10 times 0? First, what do you think it is? 10, 1, or 100?” I’m like, “This is something that we’ve never been through before.” We’ve never talked about what 10 times 0 is.
Having that experience changed the way that I looked at this organization that I was trying to start. It wasn’t about finding the next toilet job so we could keep people working or the next employer that might want to take someone on. It was more about how do we build a curriculum or a system of support for people that will meet them where they’re at, figure out what the barrier to employment is, what the barriers to employment are that chip away?
How do we build patience into that? Some people you’re going to meet may need some help getting some stable housing. They’re off to the races and that might take two months. Some people come in and they might need a 1.5 years before there may be a court case that needs to get wrapped up, maybe there’s some deep trauma that needs to be talked through and worked through. It set me on this journey and brought on people that could help me go on that journey and saying, “How can we build a system here that supports people from transitioning from wherever they’re at that moment to becoming an apprentice and eventually a journeyperson?”
I’m sure you’ve got some amazing stories that stick out in your mind, of the people that you’ve worked with over the years. Is there one in particular that sticks with you as a real visceral story of how you can impact the lives of these people or what you’re doing?
There are many that stand out over the years, and I’ve gotten to learn so much from the people that have come through Building Up. I have probably more than ten times over the past few years, someone said to me, “I don’t know if I’d be alive if it weren’t for Building Up.” When someone says that it’s like, “You put in all the work and we’re here.” I don’t even know what to make of something like that but I’ve seen many situations where someone will come with low self-esteem and not feeling good about where they’re at. They’re stressed, bouncing around, couch surfing, and homeless. Before you know it, they’ve stabilized things. Maybe they found an apartment, they got their kids back, and for the first time, they’re not in and out of jail. They’re working and they get a truck.
Before you know it, they’ll call you and say, “I’ve got my level two apprenticeship or I got my level three.” We have this group chat for all the full-time staff at Building Up and more than once a week we’re getting a picture of someone with their kid and of a past graduate. They check-in and all these different experiences show and have reaffirmed over the years that this is the thing to be doing. There are many gaps in this construction industry now that need to get filled up and Building Up is well-positioned to do that. There’s this gap between the people that want to work, the companies that need the workers, and connecting the people that most need the work to the work that most needs to get done. It’s this unique spot that I never expected we’d be in but it is what it is.
That’s a great story. For people to have a bit of a sense of the scale of the organization, you get 1,000 applications a year, how many people here go through the program? What’s your success rate in terms of placement with employers at the end of the program?
We’re at the point where we’re training about 120 people a year. Each of those people is also an employee of Building Up. We’re a unique setup and where this nonprofit business where all of our program participants are also our coworkers. They’re being paid for their time to learn math, get their driver’s license, and to get things ready to roll. About 85% of those individuals are going on to full-time careers in the construction industry. A huge reason why we’re able to have such a high success rate is there’s no rush. In a traditional training program, on the last day of class, the program’s done, and let’s hope that you’re ready to roll.
With Building Up, if the program portion of our work is done, you start working for the social enterprise. You start working on job sites with us until you’re ready to roll and you still have your case manager working with you, helping you sort things out, you can still get your tutoring, you can still do everything you need to do. We can only send the person away from Building Up when they’re ready to do so. It’s easier for the employers that we work with also because we’re not pressured to send people out before they’re ready. The employers know that when they’re getting someone from Building Up, they’re getting someone that we genuinely believe is ready to add something to their business.
You mentioned a case manager and I mentioned that in this sense, in the industry, contractors are not positioned to help employees with the social challenges. How do you fill that void? What support do you give to people within the program?
That’s a big point and that was that this has been something that we learned over the years. At first, my thinking was, if we teach people math, if we get them their driver’s license, if we have a course on nutrition, we’ve solved all of these issues and we go on. That was a stupid thing to think to be honest. What we’ve realized is we’ve built up a team of case managers. What that means is whenever anyone starts with Building Up, on day one, they get paired up with a case manager. You could call that a coach, a mentor, or a social worker. You could call that a lot of things. It’s someone that isn’t here to facilitate any class. They’re not here to teach a certain skill. They’re here to support the individual as they move through this journey at Building Up and beyond into the construction industry.
They help the individual line up things like housing, how people work through immigration, how people work through getting their IDs, and getting all sorts of logistical necessities in life. They also have people talk. We brought on an in-house therapist because we’re realized that there’s a lot of need for that, especially during COVID when people’s mental health is a little more intense. When those case managers work with the participant and at some point, they’ll let it be known internally that they believe that the individual they’re supporting is ready to move on.
From there, the individual that’s going through the training gets transitioned to a new case manager that’s strictly focused on careers. This person works with all of our employer partners and the different unions that are hiring and identifies what the different opportunities in the industry are for our graduates and matches that with the skills, experience, and the goals of the trainees. We have one individual that’s in the middle of the employers and the trainees and is helping them get set up to move into those next roles.
That is critical, in our experience of success with this. It’s to have that case manager role. I’m always interested in the idea of scale. You’ve got this amazing model and what if it could be 2, 3, or 10 times bigger? What do you think would be the barriers to scaling that you would grapple with, in thinking of that thought process? Can you unpack that a little bit?
I feel that the biggest barrier for us is the time, this is going to happen. Our growth is contingent on four things. One being, are there people that want the training? Every single time we’ve tried to start a new cohort. We’ve had ten times the amount of people apply, then we’re able to take on. That’s when we were hiring three people in a cohort or when we’re hiring 30.
I would suspect that you’re not advertising hard. These are people who found you and you have ten times more than you can accept. Is that an accurate assumption?
Yes, because people are learning. Maybe someone in the community went through, they tell their friends, or one probation officer saw someone go through Building Up, and now everyone that they’re supporting is applying. You’re getting paid training that has a high success rate of an apprenticeship which can transition into a Red Seal status. There’s a real career for people in this industry. That’s not something that Building Up had anything to do with. We happen to be a part of that system and are able to connect people to it. Seeing that one, there’s no shortage of people.
There’s always going to be a need to grow and because we want to be able to support more of these folks that are coming through. Is it possible? We’ve seen every time we’ve grown and we’ve doubled almost every year since we started. There was always this concern if we train more people, are there going to be jobs for all of them? That’s never been an issue. We’ve seen that when we provide people with the skills that are in demand in the industry, the industry is super excited about bringing them on.
I would say that in the Toronto market, it’s white-hot in Canada and there’s this bigger conversation in the entire construction industry in Canada around the Baby Boomers retiring. There’s an ageing workforce in the construction industry. Many of them are retiring within the next few years and enrollment in the trades is at an all-time low in many jurisdictions. There is a looming labour crisis that the industry is facing. I don’t see that. Is there are jobs for them to be an issue anytime soon in this industry?
We hinted that this early on. The fact that this is so often referred to as a crisis or shortage, it’s almost if that’s the crisis. How could that be a crisis? There are communities that are experiencing mass unemployment and no access to work. There need to be some more connections. That’s something that stands out. As far as other opportunities for scale, what we’ve seen as we’ve gone on is there are many opportunities for us to grow as a social enterprise. Chandos probably sees this a lot on a different scale than assets.
There’s a lot of people that want to be more intentional with their purchases and if there’s a construction company that can come in and do quality work and there’s a portfolio of strong well-managed projects, why would I not hire a company that’s going to have a little additional heart to it? We’ve seen that. When we have more work to do as a social enterprise, it gives us more opportunities to train, pay, and bring more people into the program. It’s all there for the taking and for us, the issue hasn’t been demanded. It has been more of our ability to properly manage it. We’re trying to get more sophisticated every day so we can support more people and meet all of this untapped demand in all these different areas.
That’s great. We talked about being a feeder organization for the industry. Do you want to talk about that a little bit more? What organizations do you see yourself being best positioned to feed?
That speaks to this idea of going out into the construction sector and being intentional and saying, “What is it that you want to see in your first-year apprentices and the people that are starting out with your company?” We’re specifically designing their program so the participant comes out with exactly what that employer is asking for. We’ve seen that the construction unions have been an incredible source of jobs for our graduates with wonderful career opportunities, chances for training, and chances for advancement at scale, which has been incredible.
It’s been important for us to be associated with those organizations so we can move people through. For nonunion companies, even smaller contractors like a family plumbing business that needs another helper and other first-year apprentices. We’ve had some great relationships with smaller plumbing companies, painting companies, drywalling companies, framing companies, and a lot of concrete finishers. One thing we’ve built into the actual curriculum of our program is trying to expose our participants to all the different trades that exist within this industry of construction so the people can come over out of our program with an informed idea of which trade is the one that they’re going to specialize in.
We mentioned temporary labour services as one bucket in terms of what you provide as an organization. I know that there’s a couple of other ways to engage with your organization. Do you want to unpack some more?
We offer quite a few services now. If a contractor was working on a large project and they said, “Great. We want to incorporate some more diversity into our project. We want to support the community through this renovation we’re doing. How can we work with Building Up?” There are a few clean ways to do that. One thing is straight-up recruitment. That company might say, “We need a first-year drywaller.” We’ll say, “That’s great. Here’s a list of our graduates now that are ready to go. They’ve all been vetted and shown in interest in drywall. They’ve all experienced drywalling through our program. Interview these five people, pick the one that you feel best works with your organization and go.” There are no fees associated with that. That’s the whole point of the work that we’re doing.
Another option would be to have a more temporary labour service. If someone says, “We need some drywallers for this project, but we’re not necessarily ready to commit to them full time.” We’ll say, “That’s great. We have a whole fleet of people that are looking to get into drywall. It would be an incredible aspect of their training if they had the opportunity to work with your organization. We can operate as a temporary labour service and share these guys with you and there’s no long-term commitment. If you like any of them, feel free to hire them on a long-term basis. That would be a best-case scenario for us, you and them, but if you need some temporary support, we can provide that for you.” That would be option two.
Option three would be that Building Up could be a subcontractor, ourselves on any contract. We have our own division of skilled tradespeople that are working across the city on renovation projects or gutting homes. Whether those be private individuals home that are looking to spend the money on their innovation a little more intentionally or an affordable housing provider that is looking for a more reliable contractor. We have carpenters, plumbers, painters, electricians, and all that that internally supervises our trainees on sites that we are operating as either a GC or subcontractor on. We’re doing anything we can to get people to access these opportunities and we found that operating as a business ourselves allows us to do that, and also gives us a lot more flexibility in supporting someone.
There are lots of ways to get engaged. There are quite a few people from the construction industry who will be reading this. What’s your message to them around this whole idea of social procurement, community benefit agreements, and impact sourcing? What would you have them understand?
The main thing for me is that it can sound confusing and an extra thing that sounds hard. How are we going to go about doing this? How are we going to engage the community and community benefits? This is a big challenge. This is a great opportunity and there are organizations like Building Up across Canada that are making it simple. We are training people and putting them through all of our bedding and we’re giving them personal support. You don’t need to support anyone. You need to open the doors and partner. Commit to using your projects in a beneficial way for the community, but not at the detriment of your profitability. We’re here to support. If you need people, we’ve got them. We’ll train them up before you.
Frankly, it’s a differentiator. The ability to do this sets organizations like Chandos apart. We are not doing it ourselves. We’re doing it through partnerships with great organizations like yours. If I was to piggyback on your message, I would say it’s as simple as picking up the phone and saying, “I’ve got this project. How do we do it?” “Call Marc.” It’s pretty simple and straightforward. Marc, you’re doing awesome stuff in the Canadian construction industry. This idea of using business as a force for good is the future of differentiation in business, in general. Thank you for being on the program and we wish you all the best. I wish that more people were thinking about the way that you’re thinking about business. Thanks for joining us.
Back at you, Tim. Thanks for giving us all the platform and for thinking about ways of doing things differently and a little more compassionately.
Have a good day