Victoria shipyard industry pace eases but still busy

Planned and potential contracts are painting a bright picture for Victoria Shipyards at Esquimalt Graving Dock, where hundreds of workers are expected to be employed through the year.

Although 2013 is not expected to be the “blockbuster” of 2012, ongoing federal military contracts and the possibility of other jobs are expected to keep an average of 800 workers at the yard, including more than 100 apprentices, Malcolm Barker, vice-president and general manager, said Wednesday.

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About 80 per cent of the work this year will come from federal contracts. Private work will account for the remainder, Barker said. It looks as though this will be a “reasonably good year,” he said.

Last year, an average of 1,000 workers were employed by the shipyard, Barker said. That represents one of the highest levels of employment at the shipyard in several years. Traditionally, numbers were closer to 500, Barker said. Shipbuilding and repair in Canada has gone through dramatic ups and downs for decades.

Victoria Shipyards, owned by Seaspan Marine Corp. of Vancouver, operates in rented space at the federally owned graving dock. Seaspan was the successful bidder to negotiate up to $8 billion in federal contracts to build new ships for the federal government. Shipbuilding will take place in Seaspan’s Vancouver Shipyards with final work and testing to be done out of Esquimalt.

Last year’s strong performance was in part due to the frigate life-extension program to maintain and upgrade five Halifax-class frigates. The multi-year contract is worth more than $351 million. Victoria Shipyards and its partner companies also have a five-year, $370 million contract to maintain the Canadian military’s four submarines.

“At one time last year, we had five [federal] ships on the go,” Barker said.

The frigate HMCS Calgary was in from January to June, he said. Another frigate, HMCS Winnipeg, arrived in April and is scheduled to leave at the end of March or early April. It will be replaced by the frigate, HMCS Vancouver.

HMCS Protecteur, a large supply ship, arrived in April 2012 for a refit and left in December.

As for subs, HMCS Chicoutimi, which arrived in 2010, will be going out in May. HMCS Corner Brook will replace Chicoutimi in the custom-built repair facility and that refit will begin toward the middle of this year, Barker said. Corner Brook will be at the shipyard for two and a half to three years.

Early 2012 also saw the cruise ship Sapphire Princess arrive for a month-long upgrading and modernization. Victoria Shipyards caters to the cruise lines, which bring ships into Ogden Point on the Alaska run.

When the Protecteur left, the workforce dropped by about 200, Barker said. Employment for the yard could increase depending on the outcome of bids submitted by the company. Victoria Shipyards is hoping to win refit work for U.S. fishing vessels.

No cruise ships are scheduled to arrive this year, but two are anticipated in 2014. Barker is attending a trade conference in Miami in March to promote business.

He’s pleased with the development of the new 4,400 square foot Industrial Marine Training and Applied Research Centre on Maplebank Road, off Admirals Road, serving tradesworkers and professionals. Of the 125 managers at Victoria Shipyards, 95 per cent have risen through the ranks, Barker said.

At Esquimalt Drydock Co., also operating at the graving dock, the ferry Spirit of B.C., is in for a refit. At its peak, that job will use 100 workers, said general manager Joe Sansalone. Fewer bidding opportunities are available now compared to the same times last year, Sansalone said. “I’m sure we’ll get our fair share.”

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