Seaspan Victoria Shipyards' navy contract offers apprentices chance to work on front line

Dry-dock maintenance work on the Royal Canadian Navy frigates at Seaspan Victoria Shipyards will be crucial in making the yard’s workforce sustainable, a Seaspan official says.

Steve Baker, Victoria Shipyards director of operations, said the frigates are budgeted to be in service until the mid-2040s. While the average age of the shipyard’s 1,100 workers is 42, it also maintains 150 apprentices in all trades who will train on the frigates and acquire their credentials to take over.

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“So, at the end, a lot of our people will be near retirement,” said Baker. “So, having our own young people ready to join the ranks, it’s great.”

On Tuesday, Seaspan and the federal government signed a five-year $500-million contract to perform maintenance on frigate ships of the Royal Canadian Navy. The contract was signed at a time when work had dipped slightly at the shipyard compared with last year. The naval work will begin in the early 2020s and sustain an estimated 400 workers per year.

Similar contracts have been signed at Chantier Davie shipyard in Quebec and are expected at Irving shipyards in Nova Scotia for a total federal expense of $1.5 billion.

Government and navy planners have planned for a further $7.5 billion to keep the frigates in operation until the 2040s. Seaspan Victoria Shipyards sees itself as an ideal candidate for the future work, since it already knows the vessels.

Seaspan started operating Victoria Shipyards at the federally owned Esquimalt Graving Dock in 1994. Some of its earliest work contracts were refitting Canada’s navy frigates.

The Royal Canadian Navy has 12 Halifax-class frigates. They began service in the early 1990s. With a helicopter deployed from the rear deck, the ships are considered the navy’s workhorse vessels.

Giving young workers a chance to apprentice on the vessels provides an experience unlike anything else available in Western Canada, said Jamie McPherson, chairman of the pipe trades department at Camosun College.

McPherson said a shipyard — unlike oil pipeline work, for example — offers a breadth of experience and workplace challenges to turn out better tradespeople.

“In a shipyard, you are not just bolting and unbolting,” McPherson said.

“You will be measuring layout, and doing template development and all that sort of thing.

“You might need pipe to go from here to there to there. So you need to come up with a layout design to figure out how you will fabricate all the cuts on the pipe, so you will go from here to there and make all the angles work.”

In contrast, pipefitters in Alberta oil operations spend more time “bolting up” modular units. Pipe, valves and machinery are pre-assembled off site, sometimes overseas, to create the modular units that are then shipped to the job site.

A fitter will bolt the modular unit into place and perhaps pressure-test it, but the fabrication is mostly already complete.

“You don’t find the same true fitting work,” said McPherson.

Camosun College maintains relationships with companies such as Seaspan, supplying classroom instruction while the shipyard supplies work experience.

Both are necessary to progress from apprentice to certified tradesperson.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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