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Seaspan Marine’s Vancouver Shipyards will soon be revamped to prepare for $8 billion worth of work for Ottawa (Dina Goldstein/Dina Goldstein)
Seaspan Marine’s Vancouver Shipyards will soon be revamped to prepare for $8 billion worth of work for Ottawa (Dina Goldstein/Dina Goldstein)

ROB Magazine

Shipbuilding in B.C. catches a second wind Add to ...

There is one other interesting aspect about the Washington participation. In normal circumstances, national governments can get quite protective about where they are spending their job-creation funds. And they are pointedly disinclined to line the pockets of a foreign owner. But birthplace notwithstanding, Kyle Washington is no longer a “foreign owner.” In this context, his acquisition of Canadian citizenship is one of Seaspan’s most useful assets. And as CEO Whitworth is quick to point out, “The Washingtons don’t repatriate capital.” Money that’s made in Canada will be reinvested in Canada.

Kyle Washington’s eye for talent is also critical—and seems to be playing out well in the young team at Seaspan. John Shaw says that, now the contract is in hand, “Our top five issues are: people.” That begins, most critically, with the senior management team, which was recently bolstered with the hiring of the new president of Seaspan Shipyards, Brian Carter, 41, a Seattle-area native who spent 10 years at the General Dynamics NASSCO yards in San Diego, where he oversaw $1 billion in shipbuilding work.

But the talent search will quickly extend to all levels. The company reports having received 1,600 resumés in the weeks immediately after the contract was announced. Included are a large number from British Columbians who have taken their skills to Alberta’s tar sands in search of employment and are eager to return. Paul Dangerfield, a vice-president at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, says that news of the contract also sparked an instant doubling in applications for programs such as welding, ironwork, electrical and boilermaking.

That sense of optimism—of security—is being touted as one of the most important outcomes of the federal announcement, even well in advance of any construction actually being started. “This is an industry with a good history, but a bad reputation,” says Whitworth. “In what other industry would you expect to get a job on Monday and be laid off on Tuesday?”

In the life of a West Coast shipbuilder, that was often your fate, says George MacPherson, president of the Marine Workers and Boilermakers Industrial Union Local 1. And while it was manageable when Vancouver had many busy yards, it was never secure. In his four-plus decades in the business, MacPherson says he has never seen a time when you could walk into a single shipyard and think that more than just picking up a job, you were starting a career.

Now, the Seaspan yards will have what Whitworth describes as “an anchor tenant,” one that will enable them to justify the upgrades that FMI says will bring the yard to a global standard. Just the news of that development has made a difference. In the month after the contract was announced, Whitworth received calls from other potential clients inquiring about work totalling $2 billion. None of it is actually booked, but the credibility that comes with having been judged worthy—by an international validator such as FMI—is such that even BC Ferries has been nosing around.

That’s a point that B.C. Premier Christy Clark wouldn’t confirm. When asked directly: “Will this contract make Seaspan a more credible bidder for future BC Ferries shipbuilding contracts?” Premier Clark dodged nicely, saying, “This procurement will help Seaspan remain competitive for generations.” But while steering clear of the ferries, the Premier is happy to take whatever credit she can, saying, “As you can imagine, winning the largest federal procurement in our province’s history is a huge part of our BC Jobs Plan.”

This, of course, sounds galling to B.C. New Democrats. NDP MLA John Horgan, whose riding is next to the Victoria Shipyards in Esquimalt, says, “It’s a bit odd that a government that participated in the dismantling of the shipbuilding industry is the first to be there when the ribbons are cut.” Even Liberal caucus members such as the West Vancouver-Capilano MLA Ralph Sultan are critical of Clark for being slow to get behind the Seaspan bid.

But sitting in a Seaspan boardroom—with Kyle Washington talking hockey and trimming the greenery—nobody cares about the politics. Neither does union president MacPherson. Two years ago, he sat down with Seaspan and agreed to roll back a 4.5% increase that was already included in the midst of a five-year contract. (“It was the right thing to do,” he says. “It got some of our members back to work.”) Next year, when that contract comes up for renewal, discussion may go a little differently. But MacPherson ends with two things. First, he says, “We have a very good relationship with the employer and we expect to keep it. If he stays healthy, we stay healthy.”

Second, in his 46 years in the business, MacPherson says, “This industry has never seen anything this big—and if there’s any part of it that isn’t good news, I haven’t found it.”

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