Shipbuilders eye long-term contracts worth billions

Lucrative federal work would build stronger workforce

Malcolm Barker

Malcolm Barker

Malcolm Barker doesn’t have to look out his window to see that these are exciting times for shipbuilding on Canada’s West Coast.

“If you’re in shipbuilding and you’re not feeling pretty good, you’re in the wrong business,” said Barker, Victoria Shipyards vice-president and general manager.

Seaspan Marine Corporation, which owns Victoria and Vancouver Shipyards, will submit bids on July 7 on two of the most lucrative shipbuilding contracts in Canadian history, valued at a combined $35 billion over 30 years.

The Canadian government is expected to award the contracts in early October.

“The bid is voluminous,” said Barker of the five-month effort. “Going to Ottawa, it will be 42 volumes of two-inch thick binders. So it’s quite an effort to put together.”

Up for grabs is the more profitable $20-billion contract to construct six new Arctic offshore patrol vessels and 15 single-surface combatant ships, which will replace the Canadian Navy’s frigates.

The other $15-billion contract is for construction of a non-combat naval fleet, five Canadian Coast Guard scientific research vessels, one icebreaker and three joint-support Navy ships.

“The money obviously is tremendously exciting, but the real win is the 30 years of continuous building of vessels, which will allow you to reinvest in both your people infrastructure and your capital infrastructure,” Barker said.

If awarded a contract, the bulk of the shipbuilding would take place in Vancouver beginning late 2012, early 2013, while 15 to 20 per cent of the load will fall to Victoria Shipyards. The contract would mean hiring an additional 500 workers, bringing the workforce to 1,000.

The significance of that is not lost on municipal representatives.

“It’s interesting to note that shipbuilding, marine industry and ship repair is our third major industry within Victoria, with the first being high-tech, the second being tourism,” said Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin. Shipbuilding represents a $1.2 billion windfall annually.

The long-term work would mean more work for smaller shipyards, create an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 direct and indirect jobs in B.C., and allow Victoria Shipyards to develop other capabilities and attract Arctic Circle-bound business.

“The government program is a great program, but really it is a kick-starter for many other programs,” Barker said, noting that the contract would allow the company to begin creating a more permanent workforce at a time when 20 per cent of its employees are set to retire over the next five years.

It will mean the difference between having a short-term job and a long-term career.

“People can plan. It’s what we call household-sustaining jobs. They’re the types of jobs we want to see come to this region,” Fortin said.

“Frankly, locally it’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

emccracken@vicnews.com