As National Engineering Month goes on, we’re chatting with some of the top players in Ontario’s engineering scene to discuss what’s next for the field.
What follows is a conversation with Alastair Perry, Vice-President of Renewables, Canada at SNC-Lavalin about why we need more engineers to help solve the challenges the world is facing.
Tell me a bit about yourself & your background.
Renewables, according to SNC-Lavalin’s definition, covers a whole range of different technologies and decarbonization initiatives. It includes classic renewables such as wind and solar, as well as hydrogen, carbon capture, waste to energy, and other miscellaneous decarbonization technology. It’s a fascinating portfolio to pursue, and it aligns well with both my interests and the purpose of our company; Engineering a Better Future for our Planet and its People.
Let me tell you a little about my history and how I got here, as I think it may be relevant to National Engineering Month. When I was going through school, I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew that I liked to build, create, and solve problems. I had some technical aptitude, so I decided to try engineering. My older brother studied engineering, and I thought, “if he can do it, I can do it,” so I went to Queen’s University and got a degree in electrical engineering.
When I graduated, it was during the tech bust of 2002, and the tech bubble had just burst. I had thought I was going to work for Nortel, a great Canadian company with a lot of cool intellectual property. However, that never panned out due to the tech bubble burst. Instead, I ended up joining the oil and gas sector because they offered a job that combined technical responsibility, commercial responsibility, and people-facing responsibility, which I love. I joined Imperial Oil as a new grad and spent nine years there, working through a number of different jobs.
Part way through my tenure at Imperial Oil, I became curious about the business side of things so I decided to do an MBA while working. I would say that was one of my top three life choices. It was a really interesting experience. I met great people and learned a lot. Through that process, I learned about other companies from the people I was in school with. That’s when I came across the opportunity at SNC-Lavalin.
I joined SNC-Lavalin in 2012, in a group called the Business Sustainability team. I thought that was really neat and started getting interested in the concept of sustainability. I spent seven years working in their Oil and Gas group under this Business Sustainability team and framework. After those seven years, I got interested in alternate forms of energy and joined our Nuclear Group in 2019. While in the Nuclear Group, I got involved in a number of side projects, including one related to the hydrogen industry. That led me to where I am today.
It’s been a diverse career path driven by curiosity, and it has allowed me to cover different parts of the business value chain, from supply chain marketing and sales to technical support, project management, business planning strategy, quality assurance, commercial contracts, and general management. As an engineer, I’ve had the opportunity to do many cool things and have been lucky to have those opportunities unfold for me.
Why is National Engineering Month important to SNC-Lavalin and the engineering profession overall?
National Engineering Month is important because it helps to raise awareness for the opportunities that exist in engineering today. We have a dire need for growth in the engineering profession. There are a lot of challenges in the world, and engineers are in a great position to help solve many of those challenges.
One of the focuses of my business is trying to achieve the net-zero targets that governments have published. The amount of diverse challenges that exist to reach those targets is mind-boggling. Depending on which report you read, you could find numbers in Canada ranging from a $60-to-100 billion per year investment that needs to be made to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
When you start to do back-of-the-envelope math on that, you say, “Okay, that sounds like a lot of money, but what does that really entail?” After a little bit of math and understanding about how projects are implemented, you get down to something like 30,000 more engineers that we need in Canada to deliver that infrastructure if everything else remains constant.
We’re at roughly an engineering workforce in Canada of about 300,000, and we really need 10% more engineers in the short term to deliver on this infrastructure work. There are huge demands for engineers in Canada, and I believe that Canada has a lot of really great engineers.
Canada is being looked at as a potential world leader to help solve problems elsewhere. We have a lot of good solutions that have been developed and that we can continue to develop and export to other countries that have the same needs as Canada. There are huge opportunities in the profession and we need a lot more engineers, so National Engineering Month is an excellent way to draw attention to that need.
The theme for NEM 2023 is lifelong learning. What does the concept of lifelong learning mean to you? Why is lifelong learning important in the work that you do?
Lifelong learning means keeping an open mind and always being curious. Another aspect of it is actively seeking out problems to solve instead of waiting for them to come to you. We all feel a sense of accomplishment when we solve problems, and I find it enjoyable to take on challenges. It is rewarding to reach a solution. We need this mindset to achieve our objectives and manage the challenges in front of us, such as the net-zero challenge.
If you read all the reports on pathways to net zero, you’ll find that a mix of existing technology and innovation is necessary. Lifelong learning is a big contributor to innovation. It’s not just technology that’s changing but also the way we conduct business. Business processes are changing, and we need lifelong learning to support that change, drive it, and avoid change stress. Businesses need change leaders – people who embrace change and help drive it.
One of the criticisms of the engineering and construction sector is that our productivity lags significantly behind manufacturing. If we want to reduce the resource draw, we need to address this productivity issue. And, that means changing the way we deliver things. We need leaders to help drive that change. I’m quite impressed with the new graduates that come into our business. They embody adaptability and change leadership. In fact, some of them get bored if they’re not subjected to constant change, which is fantastic. It’s definitely the quality we need to drive things forward.
Can you tell me a little more about SNC-Lavalin and the types of projects you work on?
SNC-Lavalin is a company that has been around for over 100 years, precisely 112 years. It’s an interesting story that started with one individual in Montréal who built the company. The company has been growing through organic and acquisition means since then, building a lot of critical infrastructure in Canada and abroad.
One of the main reasons that attracted me to the company when I moved in 2012 was that it was a Canadian-based company, and I am a proud Canadian interested in working for a company based in my home country. Additionally, the company takes on challenging engineering and construction projects in remote and challenging areas globally, employing many great Canadian engineers who solve some cool problems.
Currently, the company has over 30,000 employees. We have a leading presence across
Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., as well as targeted operations in Europe, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, and Latin America.
The company targets seven clearly defined end markets across the built and natural environment, including transportation, buildings and places, defense, industrial and mining, water, nuclear, and power and renewables (my group).
Regarding the transportation group, notable projects include the High Speed 2 (HS2) and East-West Rail schemes in the UK.. These are major infrastructure jobs that move millions of people and help mitigate climate change by reducing the use of personal vehicles.
On the buildings and places side, SNC-Lavalin is involved in developing a futuristic $100- to-$200 billion zero-emission, high-tech city called NEOM in Saudi Arabia. The project is on the cutting edge of technology deployment in that space and is a high-profile project that excites many people. Additionally, the company is involved in developing low-cost modular housing solutions to address chronic housing shortages in other places worldwide, like the UK.
Regarding defense, the company is involved in developing facial recognition systems at international airports like Heathrow, among other things. For the mining industry, the company focuses on the sustainable development of mining facilities to support the energy transition to net zero, providing the necessary critical minerals to support EV batteries, wind turbines, solar panels, battery storage, and other aspects of the energy transition. Meanwhile, our industrial group is involved in the pharmaceutical, agri-food, IT, logistics, and life sciences sectors.
The water industry involves water treatment, desalination facilities, and addressing water shortages or access to potable water, which is still a major issue globally, including in Canada.
SNC-Lavalin is involved in the development of Canada’s first small modular reactor and the next generation of nuclear reactor technologies, which is touted as one of the important solutions to achieving net zero. The group also conducts R&D-type work. Our company is actually the original equipment manufacturer of the CANDU nuclear technology found on four continents and used extensively here at home.
Lastly, the power and renewables group focuses on transmission and distribution, energy storage, hydropower, and renewable energy. A big part of our current focus is supporting and growing the hydrogen industry, which is a fascinating opportunity from an energy carrier perspective. Additionally, the group focuses on projects that support the decarbonization of the power grid or add clean generation to the grid. It’s widely agreed that we’ll need to either double or triple our power generation in Canada by 2050 to achieve net zero, which is a huge amount of generation to bring to the grid. Achieving this goal means we need to triple the historic build rate of the past, which is a massive task that needs to be accomplished in the next two decades.
The great thing about the company is all these groups I mentioned above work together. Most of our projects involve a multidisciplinary, and multi-country team, coming together to deliver the best of our company to the marquee projects we work on.
How has the engineering profession changed over the past 5 to 10 years & how is SNC-Lavalin capitalizing on those changes?
A number of things have changed in the last five to ten years, but a couple of key points come to mind. One of the things I’ve noticed is the degree of collaboration across regions. COVID-19 wasn’t a driver of that, but it might have been a catalyst to support it. I look at the interaction our business has across borders and through technology, and I think it has increased substantially. We’re working with a lot more people who aren’t just local team members, but team members spread out all around the world. I think that’s great because it gives us access to specialized talent that could be working anywhere in the world, which helps address some of the challenges we have on projects. Remote work is another aspect that has changed significantly. Many folks were anticipating a drop in productivity through working at home, but that hasn’t materialized in a lot of cases. If you’re going to be working with people from all over the world, you could work from wherever, so that’s something that’s changed.
The other thing that’s changed is the way our work is delivered and progressed in terms of engaging stakeholders. There’s a lot more engagement from the community and other stakeholders, which is a good thing, and it’s driven a lot more collaboration in the way we approach our design work. Sustainability is another aspect that has changed. We have better information now on the environmental footprint of the solutions we’re developing, and there’s both the desire and requirement to drive something that’s more sustainable and efficient. It’s usually a win-win because it’s better for the environment and more efficient to deliver, which is financially more attractive.
One of the obvious changes is the integration of digital solutions now, both in communication technology and technology to help manage the design and integrate it with construction. This is critical to address the productivity challenge in engineering and construction. AI and data are some of the solutions but they’re not the only solution or the silver bullet. It can help make sure we’re connecting the design with the supply chain, construction, and operation and maintenance of a facility. Tools like building information modeling, digital twins, and digital scanning help with that. There are also tools like augmented reality that can help us visualize projects without leaving the office or home.
One of the other aspects becoming more important on the design side is cybersecurity. Cyber threats are on the mind of many leaders in the world right now. We can help address that on the design side by looking at the digital components of a facility and looking at detection and prevention measures early on before a facility is built. That’s something I’ve noticed that’s different in the last 5-to-10 years.
Last but not least, I’d say the industry’s sensitivity to safety, equality, diversity, and inclusion are critical factors that ensure the sustainability of our profession and business. I think those have taken big steps forward in the last five to ten years, and that’s really nice to see.
Are there any specific programs, initiatives, or outcomes happening at SNC-Lavalin that you’d like to tell me about?
One of the main direction changes that our company underwent occurred a couple of years ago when our CEO set a new path for us. This path was aimed at engineering a better future for our planet and its people, and it has become the North Star for all the work we do. I think this is great because it gives us a purpose and an overarching goal that helps people stay focused on solving problems and feel good about the work we deliver. Underneath this goal, a whole bunch of different initiatives have emerged, one of which is our Engineering Net Zero initiative. You can learn more about this initiative by visiting the Engineering Net-Zero website.
The Engineering Net Zero initiative includes not only projects aimed at decarbonizing the built environment but also thought leadership on topics such as decarbonization pathways to net-zero and various technologies like hydrogen that we believe will be essential to achieving our goal. SNC-Lavalin has identified its own steps to achieve net zero by 2030, and we’re also looking at ways to help our clients, including private and public sectors, develop and achieve their own net-zero targets.
Collaboration and community engagement are also areas of focus for us. We’re actively involved with the Indigenous community through our reconciliation program as well as in project support and engagement. We’ve participated in pro bono ground penetration radar for residential schools, and we’re also working to support the development of the Indigenous business supply chain in Canada. We hire Indigenous businesses as subcontractors for our work, partner with them to help drive projects forward, and run scholarship programs for Indigenous students. We also have hiring targets for Indigenous peoples.
On the student front, we’re quite active as well. We’re involved with over 30 Canadian universities, whether it’s recruiting, engagement in activities, or supporting local equality, diversity, and inclusion initiatives. We do a lot of recruiting for both full-time and internship positions, and we’re involved in supporting university case competitions. Within the business, we’re keen on helping to develop the new graduate experience. Being able to bring in large numbers of new graduates is important to us, given the challenge of developing all the infrastructure we need to support decarbonization efforts. We’re developing a new grad program, which is a 2-year orientation program that helps expose grads to various experiences and accelerates their learning so that they can contribute quickly to the business.
Finally, we’re working on developing the systems and tools to help people be efficient in delivering their work and have a good experience as an employee. We’re keenly aware that there’s a war for talent right now, and we want to make sure we offer the best experience and growth opportunities to people who are considering us as an employer.
What does the future of engineering look like and how does SNC-Lavalin fit into that?
Given the changes we’ve seen in the last 5-to-10 years, I believe we will continue to witness them and experience an acceleration in the future. I expect more global interactions driven by resource needs. Communication will become increasingly important, and we need to collaborate and communicate efficiently and effectively. Stakeholder relations, adopting a multi-capitals approach, partnerships, and collaboration are critical to project success. We must consider sustainability requirements, such as the carbon footprint of facilities and their maintenance.
Overall, I believe everything will become more interesting as the challenges become more accessible, and we see solutions. Productivity challenges will continue to drive us to adapt to the profession. While I cannot predict all the changes, I believe the engineering profession will be an exciting place to be in the next few years as the productivity challenge drives significant changes to the way we work. This will enable us to achieve more in less time, which I think everyone desires.
SNC-Lavalin, as a global company, will continue to develop global execution capability across multiple offices. Collaboration tools will improve, and we will see advancements in the spaces we use to innovate and collaborate. For instance, we have implemented Lava Labs in some of our offices. These digitally-enabled collaboration spaces feature VR tools, immersive visual technologies, and large digital screens that help people visualize projects, and work together efficiently and innovatively.
Developing the employee experience will continue to be critical, and we need to find ways to keep people engaged, promote continuous learning, and chart career paths that offer growth opportunities. With all the developments happening, I believe there will be no shortage of opportunities and we see our company morphing to adapt to all the changes happening in the world.
Any final thoughts?
I think it’s important to ensure that children don’t view engineering as solely focused on design or crunching numbers. It’s not what you experience in high school, and maybe not even in university. There’s much more to the profession than that. In our business, for example, we engage in a variety of consulting mandates, including techno-economic studies, that involve problem-solving and don’t solely rely on technical design or numbers. The profession is incredibly diverse, and it’s crucial that anyone considering it doesn’t feel confined to sitting in front of a design platform all day. Doing so would mean missing out on the broader aspects of the profession.
To get more information about SNC-Lavalin, please visit their website.
Learn. Grow. Thrive. Together.
With bold topics, industry expertise, and diverse perspectives – National Engineering Month is Ontario’s engineering event of the year. Together we can advance the engineering profession, spark an interest in the next generation of engineering professionals and celebrate the role that engineers play in our society. We hope you can be a part of these incredible events by attending a #NEM2023 event. For more information about National Engineering Month Ontario events, please visit nemontario.ca.