Green economy needs to cultivate builders, not just innovators

We are on the verge of another pivotal moment in Canada’s infrastructure history – one that will reshape our economy. But we need next-generation talent to build that infrastructure.

Canada’s economy is inextricably linked to our infrastructure, and it’s always been so. Our nation and its economy would have developed very differently were it not for the construction of a transcontinental railway just 14 years after Confederation in 1867.

On the eve of Canada’s 150th anniversary, the country and the economy look vastly different than they did in 1881, when the first trains rolled from Montreal to British Columbia.

What is similar today is the impact an infrastructure shift will have on our economy. This time, it’s not the agrarian economy but the innovation economy that will create wealth for all.

The federal government has dedicated nearly $190 billion over the next 10 years to its new infrastructure plan, with priorities centred on communities and transportation.

The plan also sets out to harness new and emerging technologies to make Canada cleaner, greener and smarter.

Within the innovation agenda we hear the consistent message that we need to support the people who innovate. The message needs to be the same for developing Canada’s infrastructure talent, because just as it’s people who innovate, it’s also people who build.

So where will Canada’s next-generation infrastructure talent come from?

If the focus is on infrastructure that’s clean, green and smart, much of that talent is already being developed at Canada’s polytechnics, colleges and institutes of technology.

Across Canada, polytechnic institutes are training the next generation of green-collar workers with a hands-on model of education.

In Alberta, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) is building the talent that will maintain Canada’s clean transportation infrastructure. Partnering with Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and BYD Co. Ltd., a leader in battery technology and zero-emissions, NAIT will deliver world-class training for certifications in the maintenance of heavy-duty electric vehicles.

As Canada’s energy priorities shift, Alberta is leading the way to ensure it has the workforce capable of implementing innovative solutions.

In Ottawa, Algonquin College is training tradespeople for the green economy in the Algonquin Centre for Construction Excellence – a sustainable, highly energy-efficient living lab, complete with green roof, 22-metre-high biofilter living wall and a Platinum certification from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). What better way to learn green than to live green?

In Vancouver, the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s Smart Microgrid is revolutionizing the way clean energy is delivered. Incorporating renewable energy sources such as wind and photovoltaic solar, it’s a small-scale version of a traditional electricity system deployable in a range of locations. It has sparked its own research program, in partnership with government and industry, that’s testing and verifying the technologies and regulations required for Canada’s future smart grid.

Although Canada looks like a very different country today than it did in 1867, high-quality infrastructure that serves the needs of the people is still the nation’s backbone. That backbone is certainly more than the steel tracks, iron spikes and wooden ties we started with.

Zero-emissions vehicles, green and energy-efficient buildings and innovations in off-the-grid delivery of energy are necessary for Canada to succeed in the new global economy, in the same ways it succeeded for the previous 150 years.

A 21st-century economy requires the support of 21st-century infrastructure, and Canada’s polytechnics are delivering the talent to build it. 

Nobina Robinson is chief executive officer of Polytechnics Canada, a national alliance of Canada’s leading polytechnics and colleges. Dr. Glenn Feltham is president and CEO of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

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