SEASPAN: Building the future of Canadian shipbuilding

By Evelyn Brotherston

Ever since the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS) was originally launched in 2011, there is one phrase that has been tossed around repeatedly, included in just about every news release related to the program. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a news story that doesn’t mention it, let alone a political speech.

The phrase? “Boom and bust.”

NSS — the monumental plan to renew Canada’s Navy and Coast Guard fleets — will rebuild Canada’s shipbuilding industry, and set the sector on a path towards sustainable success, in place of the boom-and-bust outcome of previous federal programs.

We sat down with Tim Page, Vice President of Seaspan Shipyards, to take stock of how this ambitious plan is playing out and, in particular, what he envisions the future of Seaspan to look like well into the future.

“Prior to NSS we had 35 staff and 120 trades people working at Vancouver Shipyards (VSY),” Page explains. “Today, having invested $170 million of our own money to build a modern and competitive shipyard as a direct result of NSS, we employ over 800 trades and white-collar workers and that number is growing. So, the physical look and feel of VSY is entirely different.”

For anyone who’s recently visited Vancouver, there’s tangible proof of this increased scale: a giant blue crane that dominates the horizon of the North Shore, visible to anyone who’s sipping coffee across the harbour in downtown Vancouver.

Local retailers are feeling the knock-on effects of the increased economic activity generated by Seaspan’s work under NSS, and elementary and high school enrolment is also up on Vancouver’s North Shore.

“We have come a long way in a very short period of time,” Page says. “Seaspan’s Vancouver Shipyards today is an entirely different creature than it was four years ago when NSS was put in place.”

A palpable sense of momentum has set in. After completing its shipyard modernization project ahead of schedule and under-budget, Vancouver Shipyards has set to work on building its first class of vessels for the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG): the Offshore Fisheries Science Vessel (OFSV). The first two are already well underway, with work scheduled to begin on the third and final vessel before the end of 2016.

At the same time, engineering, program planning, and early procurement has begun for the next two classes of ships, the CCG’s Offshore Oceanographic Science Vessel (OOSV) and the much-needed Joint Support Ships (JSS) for the Royal Canadian Navy. In fact, managing three programs concurrently is unusual and unique, a capability that only two other shipyards in North America can boast.

“Building a first of class vessel in a newly upgraded shipyard as we are in Vancouver with the OFSV project presents a great many opportunities for learning,” Page explains.

“Capturing and applying those lessons learned will help us to complete the second and third OFSVs with greater time and budget efficiencies, and will set us up for success as we deliver the remainder of our initial work under the NSS in the years to come.”

To date, the company has engaged 380 different suppliers, representing more than $400-million in committed contracts, mostly with Canadian companies. The breakdown of these suppliers speaks to the wealth of marine-related industries that are getting a boon from NSS: everything from a business in Lakeside, NS, providing fire safety equipment, to a Langley, BC company that is providing ship-side weather-tight doors and port lights. Local ironworkers and welding companies are also integral partners.

For Page, one of the biggest success stories has been a company called Genoa Design, from St. John’s, Newfoundland: “They’re doing all of our 3-D design work for the OFSV vessels, so that we get a much better idea of how to build the vessels than simply looking off of 2-D design information.”

In fact, he says, “Some of our engineers like to say we’ll be building the OFSV vessels twice, having built them first through the 3-D model, and then sending that 3-D model out to the yard to actually build the ships.”

Four years ago, Genoa was a small Canadian company of only 13 employees, says Page. “Now they envisage an employment number upwards of a hundred, largely as a consequence of the work we’ve been sending their way in support of our OFSV project.”

The question, of course, is whether all this activity is here to stay, even after the final NSS vessel is completed.

Page is very optimistic. The wealth of experience gained through NSS, he believes, will mean Seaspan is well placed to do both new government work and large-scale commercial projects in the future. “We are intent on maintaining a level resource load. That is shipyard-speak for we want to keep our trades men and women and our professional staff working at a stable and predictable level,” he says.

“We think the more we progress the National Shipbuilding Strategy’s inventory of work, the more attractive we will be to performing shipbuilding work for commercial customers. We also expect there to be a continuing flow of need for new vessel construction — vessels of over a thousand gross tons — from the federal government, particularly as it relates to down-stream Coast Guard requirements.”

In addition to Seaspan’s increased capacity and growing body of experience, there’s another reason to be optimistic about a long-term shift in West Coast shipbuilding: training opportunities for marine-related careers are growing by leaps and bounds, in no small part thanks to Seaspan’s vision.

At the time Seaspan won the right to build ships under NSS, there was a well-assessed lack of opportunities for training in the province.

Today, examples of the company’s investment in a future workforce are many: $2-million towards the University of British Columbia’s Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering program; $300,000 to the British Columbia Institute of Technology to support Aboriginals in trades; $300,000 to Camosun College in Victoria to support women in trades; and $300,000 to the Canadian Welding Association Foundation to provide new equipment and professional development for instructors teaching welding at the high school level.

At the same time, Page points out that Seaspan is also actively promoting shipbuilding-related careers to young people. They currently have 40 apprentices working at Vancouver Shipyards, all of them coming out of local community colleges and technical institutes.

“For the past three years, we have also been conducting an internship program, targeting B.C. and Canadian university students, to promote shipbuilding and marine-related professions as a career of choice,” Page says. “By later this year, we will have a total of 34 cohorts who are in the system or have been through the system. The first intern ever hired into Seaspan was an engineering student from the University of Victoria who has since been promoted to the role of Deputy Project Engineer, working on the Offshore Oceanographic Science Vessel project.”

The long and short of it is that training opportunities today represent a significant shift from what existed just five years ago. The result will be a well-trained work force with expertise in relevant trades, as well as professional services like engineering.

For Page, the most rewarding thing about the past four years of work has been the love of shipbuilding he has seen displayed by all the men and women involved in NSS work. “I think that the passion, pride and commitment that the folks here at Vancouver Shipyards, and within the Government of Canada, are demonstrating on a daily basis have been the most rewarding thing,” he says. “We are adding to the economic and security interests of Canada, and ultimately to our national sovereignty. Canada has 340,000 kilometres of coast line; we are a maritime nation and we need maritime fleets to protect and promote our commercial trade and our maritime interests.”

With the NSS program now moving full steam ahead, it looks like Canadian shipbuilding may indeed be heading for better waters.