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The work is there, the skilled workers are not

by Tim Wilson

There is good news for Canada’s manufacturing sector.

Much of it is coming off of the announcement last October that the federal government awarded $33 billion in shipbuilding contracts. There is also some optimism that the US economy is beginning to pick up. But to take full advantage of the opportunity, industry, government, and colleges need to  fine-tune their strategies.

The $33 billion is to be divided  between dry-docks in Vancouver, where Seaspan Marine will be the lead for an $8-billion investment in coast guard and other non-navy ships, and Halifax, where Irving Shipbuilding landed a $25-billion naval vessel  building contract. Both Seaspan and Irving are now putting plans in place to ensure they have the right people.

We have about 200 employees now, but by the end of 2012 we expect that to double,” says John Shaw, VP program management of Seaspan Marine. “The additional employees will be primarily focussed on new construction and will cover all the basic trades—welders, pipe fitters, electricians, mechanics.”

For Irving in Halifax, the first task is to complete the negotiations with the federal government on the umbrella agreement that establishes the  framework for subsequent contracts. Then the contract for the first set of vessels, the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS), must be negotiated. Irving expects these two steps to be completed by the end of 2012.  

“Based on this schedule, our  objective would be to see the  production process on the AOPS  begin in late 2013,” says Steve Durrell, president, Irving Shipbuilding. 

Durrell emphasizes that Irving  Shipbuilding is at the beginning of  a 30-year process. The company  currently has more than 1,400  employees, and expects to reach peak employment of approximately 2,700 in 2020, when the completion of the AOPS vessels is expected to overlap with the beginning of the production process for the new Canadian Surface Combatants.  

And, while 1,000 of that peak employment is anticipated  to be staff positions, the  remaining 1,700 will be  comprised of skilled trades’ people. For that reason, local colleges like Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) are having to adjust to demand, and make sure that they get it right for the long haul.

“There has been an upswing in  interest in welding, metal fabrication, and machining – it came almost right on the heels of the announcement last October,” Says Bruce Tawse , vice  president, Academic Services for the NSCC. “It would be easy and enticing for us to simply ramp up and produce more graduates, but we need to  be sure the market is ready to  accept them.”

Consequently, Tawse says that the NSCC is working closely with the  provincial government, Irving  Shipbuilding, as well as other industrial partners to find out what skills are needed, and when. 

“We may have to modify some of the curriculum, but we can respond quickly and nimbly to make that  happen,” says Tawse.

Although detailed  specifications on the vessel  programs is not yet known, Irving Shipbuilding does have  a good idea of the overall  requirements.

“We anticipate the types of trades we will be seeking will include metal fabrication, pipe fitting, iron worker, welding and burning, electrical, rigging, and general labour,” says  Durrell. “On the staff side, we  anticipate our largest needs will be in the areas of engineering, planning,  supply chain management, continuous  improvement and quality assurance.” SMT

Tim Wilson is a freelance writer based in Peterborough, ON.

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