Construction gap could bring shipyard layoffs


Tradespeople at Seaspan’s North Vancouver shipyard are facing the possibility of major layoffs after the company announced that a gap in construction of new federal non-combat vessels is coming next year.

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Butch Sidey, business agent for the Marine Shipbuilders Union local 506, which represents unionized workers at Seaspan, said a worst-case scenario would see “big layoffs [in] a year or a year and a half when there’s not going to be any work between ships.”

There are currently 600 tradespeople working at the yard.

Laid-off workers would be hunting for new jobs at a time of high demand for trades workers in B.C.’s construction sector.

If layoffs materialize, “it’s going to be very hard to get these individuals back. The skill loss is massive,” said Sidey.

What’s unknown is how much work Seaspan will be able to win during its downtime with federal contracts. If it can pin down jobs, it can keep its workforce intact.

“This is unwelcome and unplanned, but not unusual in the shipbuilding world,” Tim Page, Seaspan’s vice-president of government relations, said Thursday. Seaspan also owns Victoria Shipyards, which works out of Esquimalt Graving Dock.

The break gives Seaspan “an important opportunity to improve how we are managing the construction of our vessels under the National Shipbuilding Strategy.” This will see the company examining how to improve the process and operations around vessel construction, Page said.

A new crane is enabling the North Vancouver company to chase more work, Page said. As well as working on new federal ships, Seaspan has a barge, a navy patrol vessel and a Canadian Coast Guard ship in its yard for upgrading.

Victoria Shipyards is anticipating continuing contracts into 2020 to keep its local operations busy and to boost worker numbers to between 600 and 1,000 people.

In North Vancouver, Seaspan is launching the first of three offshore fisheries science vessels on Dec. 8. That ship will be in Victoria days later for the start of trials and testing.

A second offshore fisheries vessel is about 50-per-cent structurally complete and a third is at about 35 per cent, Page said.

Seaspan does not want to line up new builds because it is busy working on plans for the fourth ship, a 282-foot-long offshore oceanographic science vessel.

B.C. celebrated in 2011 when the federal government granted Seaspan the right to bid on what was expected to be up to $8 billion in contracts.

This was seen as a major economic stimulus for the province’s economy, a way to revitalize and modernize B.C.’s shipbuilding sector and related industries, and to train and provide steady jobs for workers who could plan on careers in this sector.

Beyond the fourth vessel, plans call for two joint support ships, a Polar icebreaker and up to 10 offshore patrol vessels.

— files from Jane Seyd, North Shore News

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