By Scott Taylor
(Written March 2019)
When the Canadian Government launched the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS) initiative back in 2010, the objectives were multi-fold. By investing an estimated $60 billion over a three-decade timeframe, the program was intended to revitalize both the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), while simultaneously rebuilding Canada’s shipbuilding capacity on both coasts.
Seaspan Shipyards of British Columbia was selected to be Canada’s long-term supplier of non-combat vessels as part of what has since been renamed the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS).
Seaspan is currently building four ships – three Offshore Fisheries Science Vessels (OFSV) and a Joint Support Ship (JSS) for the CCG and RCN respectively. Concurrently, design, engineering, and procurement work is underway for another vessel, the Offshore Oceanographic Science Vessel (OOSV). “The strategic importance of a shipbuilding capability on the West Coast is mirrored by the economic and career opportunities that are opening up across the country,” said Tim Page, Seaspan’s Vice-President of Government Relations. “To date Seaspan has committed contracts worth $850 million through a domestic supply chain of 540 companies and we are actively promoting and investing in the next generation of ship designers, program managers and shipbuilders as part of our commitment to rebuild the industry’s capacity for the long term.
Last year alone, Seaspan had over 200 apprentices learning on the job at their facilities in both Vancouver and Victoria - learning their skills from more experienced tradespeople. Another 75 interns were working alongside Seaspan’s senior marine engineers and naval architects.
“These individuals have been invested in the pursuit of a career in shipbuilding because of the prospect of long-term, stable, predictable work, something that did not exist in Canada prior to the NSS” said Page. “As we say, when you build ships, you build more than ships and our workforce is living proof of that reality thanks to the NSS.”
As Seaspan’s workforce has increased, so has its diversity. Women now occupy key roles throughout the company, which had previously been an almost exclusively male workforce.
One of the first apprentice hires under the NSS expansion was Kendall Trout, a 35 year-old steel fabricator. Originally from Ontario, Trout had worked a few construction jobs before enrolling in the marine fitter course offered at British Columbia Institute of Technology in Burnaby, BC. She was the first female to take the course and she graduated as the top student. Seaspan, which has partnered with BCIT in support of training initiatives, had recruiters at the graduation ceremony in June 2015 and she was immediately hired by them as an
Trout has since been working toward her red seal qualification, participating in the construction of both the OFSVs and the JSS at the Seaspan Shipyard. “This is a long term career for me” said Trout. “I have a cousin in the Coast Guard, and to know that I am building the ships he will one day sail on is also a point of personal pride for me.”
Someone else who beams with corporate pride is Nancy Matthews, currently the Manager of Shipyard Accounting at the company’s North Vancouver yard. For the past 38 years she has worked for Seaspan and has seen first-hand the drastic ebb and flow of the company’s workforce during the various periods of boom and bust associated with Canadian shipbuilding over the past nearly four decades.
“At one point things were so slow, we were down to about 80 workers in the yard,” recalled Matthews. “I wrote all their paycheques – by hand- and knew everyone of them personally.”
That is no longer possible as Seaspan has expanded under the NSS to the point where there are over 1,100 workers at the new construction yard with a thousand more at the companies two dry dock locations.
For Matthews, the connection to shipbuilding is a family affair. Her father served aboard a RCN Corvette, hunting German U-boats during WWII. Her late husband worked in the Seaspan shipyard and one of her two sons worked for the Washington family at their private estate on Stuart Island. Dennis Washington purchased Seapsan in 1998. The investment made by Washington, which culminated with the award of the NSS contracts, has meant that for the foreseeable future employees at Seaspan can make long-term career plans. “The previous sense of uncertainty is gone” said Matthews, “Seaspan workers today can rely upon steady work for decades to come.”
For Karen Obeck, Seaspan has offered her what she describes as “the best possible job to end a career – one that will allow me to leave a legacy.”
As the Director of Property and Security, Obeck manages a team of 29. She retired from the RCMP four years ago, and was hired to her current post in April 2018. Her responsibilities include overseeing security checks on the rapidly expanding Seaspan workforce. “There have been growing pains, but I have received a tremendous amount of senior level support” said Obeck. “What is refreshing is that I’ve been given a fair amount of decision making authority which means I’m dealing with less bureaucracy than has been my experience in the public sector.”
Also a recent hire at Seaspan, but still in the infancy of her career is Helen To, Manager Industrial and Regional Benefits. A native of Toronto, To graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa in 2008 with a business degree. She began as a consultant, working primarily with Public Works and various other government departments. After a brief stint as a Project Manager at the University of British Columbia, To was hired to her current position at Seaspan. “It has been interesting for me to dive deep into this one industry, there really is a lot to learn,” said To. “I’m really excited to be part of this company as it grows. There is a real sense of excitement and anticipation.”
For those familiar with Seaspan’s past, the present and future of the shipyard are viewed with pride and optimism. “The workforce used to be primarily Brits and Scots, with men in the yard and women doing the office work” recalled Matthews. “One foreman used to always ask me if I had put his tea on.”
That all has changed now with Seaspan deserving full kudos for making it possible for women to have exciting careers in a formally male dominated field.