By R. Bruce Striegler

From coast to coast, Canada is home to at least nine major marine industry training facilities, along with a few community colleges offering preliminary or entrance-level training. Statistics on total Canadian graduates are difficult to come by, but conversations with representatives of key training providers indicate the number is less than several hundred per year. It’s worth noting that by law, only Canadian citizens or permanent residents can work on Canadian vessels and only then with a valid Canadian certificate of competency.

Jeffery Smith, immediate past National Council Chair of the Canadian Institute of Marine Engineering (CIMarE) says, “Canada is not pronouncedly ahead or behind other developed economies in the anticipated retirement or exit of personnel from the marine transport industry. We’re experiencing about the same demographics and economic shifts as other comparable economies. So Canada is not better or worse, but we are facing some significant challenges in the recruitment and replacement of people, particularly on the sea-going side.”

The problem is catching the attention of Canadian ferry operators, a group representing the largest fleet operators in the country. In its spring 2014 newsletter, the Canadian Ferry Operators Association reports that the looming skills shortages are severe enough that it decided to hold a roundtable with marine training facilities to discuss how the two groups could work together to address the issue.

Smith is referring to sea-going personnel or others working to ensure marine transport in Canada remains viable. This comprises both licenced and unlicenced workers, and includes a variety of other roles such as skilled shipyard trades through to naval architects or professionals like marine accreditors or those in government roles. Due to increased labour mobility, Smith says that the quality of Canadian certification for sea-going people and the increasing uniformity of certification in the marine transportation sector puts virtually all states or regions in competition. “We’re not in competition with other advanced economies, rather the competition is felt where marine transportation is most economically prosperous. So significant hiring opportunities are found in a global setting, but more pronounced in those countries or states which operate or register large commercial fleets.”

Marine transportation careers need more visibility

Asked how the marine industry can overcome perceptions that it is an “old” industry, lacking the sizzle of high technology or finance, Jeff Smith of CIMarE says the answer is complex. “A simplistic answer would be the marine sector presents particular challenges to would-be entrants. The experience of younger Canadians is generally removed from the marine industry so the prospect of a career in that field, especially since we are not predominantly a marine trading nation, is not so readily apparent and not so readily sold or promoted,” adding that as Canadians, “we have more of an expectation towards university education and careers in the professional white-collar or humanities fields.”

“We have good technological and trades programs in Canada, but they’re not comparatively numerous nor are they clearly making up or going to make up, the demand for skilled educated people. So when you go to our marine trades institutions such as L’institut maritime du Québec à Rimouski or Georgian College’s Owen Sound Campus, they’re very fine institutions with some demand for entry, but the aggregate number of places in them in is not particularly large, which is startling given the size of our economy,” says Mr. Smith. “This is somewhat explained by the fact that Canada is not a large country of registration for shipping and we don’t have deep historical roots as a marine trading nation.” He notes that the relative long period of qualification for jobs in the marine sector may also discourage some. “That’s unfortunate, because the payback is very substantial. Achieving higher category operating licences or certificates, particularly on the marine engineering side, is comparable to graduating as a physician or lawyer.”

British Columbia Institute of Technology’s Marine Training

Roughly 70 per cent of students at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) are from B.C., the rest from across Canada. Jeff Otto, Connect Coordinator at BCIT’s North Vancouver marine campus says, “Our courses are designed to have individuals achieve the various milestones for Transport Canada’s Certificates of Competency. We offer students a wide range of courses and programs in navigation, marine engineering, seamanship, and maritime security, and nautical science programs such as the Diploma (Deck Officer).”

BCIT works to ensure that students have opportunities to interact with potential employers and Otto says, “This week, for example, we’ve arranged for Ledcor, a B.C.-based diversified construction company and significant operators of tugs and barges, to talk to faculty and current students. They have future needs for 150 master ticketed officers and deckhands. We definitely try to bridge that employment gap for students to try and get them work or make them aware of jobs in the industry.”

Nautical Sciences and Marine Engineering Cadet programs are both four years in length, and Otto says that students who enroll also take a variety of other courses, progressing to become a watch-keeping mate on the nautical sciences side or a fourth-class marine engineer on the marine engineering side and then get exemptions for their next level tickets. “We also offer shorter courses that an upgrader who is currently working in the industry would come back to BCIT and take. Whether they be marine emergency duties or a higher level simulated electronic navigation course or, in the case of engineers, a propulsion simulation course, they may be back here a couple of weeks or months.” BCIT also offers 13-week courses including bridge watchman. Otto says BCIT keeps its student numbers, but experiences high retention and throughput rates in those programs.

Otto believes the Canadian marine training scene is healthy. “If you look at the sub-divisions between the nautical sciences side or the deck side and the marine engineering side, marine engineering is definitely white hot, especially for those officers with higher level tickets such as thirds or seconds. We send out job postings to all the marine engineering grads and see that the true demand is on that side of the house. Nautical sciences students are still getting work, but marine engineering is more sought after.”

“I think that support and interest from industry is critical to any educational institution, especially in the marine training sphere” says Otto. He says BCIT is seeing that support from BC Ferries. “They’re hiring cadets from us to provide the essential sea-time a cadets need. We see the Pacific Pilotage Authority utilizing our facilities to train-up future pilots. We have Disney Cruise Lines doing basic safety training for their international crews, and we’re especially pleased to see that a host of other companies are supporting our training by providing sea-time for our cadets including Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Algoma Central Corp., Canada Steamship Lines, Transport Desgagnés and others who have been essential in offering our students sea-time so they may advance to their next higher level ticket. It’s that engagement of industry helping us that leads to our success and our student’s success.”

Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University, Newfoundland

Catherine Dutton, head of school maritime studies says the St. John’s institute is 50 years old this year, and is comprised of three schools. “One is the school of fisheries, another is ocean technology and the third, the School of Maritime Studies. It’s the School of Maritime Studies that I’m involved with, and we do all the training and education programs for seafarers, all the specialized simulation safety courses for the marine transportation industry as well as for the off-shore oil industry on the East Coast.” The Institute is also involved in programs related to ship design covering all aspects of design, operation and maintenance of ships.

The Fisheries and Marine Institute degree courses include Diploma of Technology, Joint Diploma of Technology/Bachelor of Technology, Technician Diploma, Technical Certificate, Advanced Diploma, Degree, Post Graduate Certificate or Master’s Degree. Ms. Dutton says,

“We offer industry-leading short courses in a variety of areas including aircraft rescue and firefighting, fishing and small boat industry, industrial safety and emergency response, marine transport training and offshore petroleum and processing and more.” The Institute also offers Canadian Navy training programs in electro-mechanical engineering and marine engineering.

Dutton says that in the three or four-year maritime studies courses, the Institute will handle upwards of 450 students, graduating up to sixty per year. “The majority come from the east coast, some from across the country, but on the design side we do get students from B.C. and even the U.S. Our design or naval architecture course is the only one in the country, so it attracts a wider range of students.” The Institute has a facility of about 40 covering the academic side, with additional staff on the simulator or boat rescue areas.

As for employment following graduation, Dutton says, “Right now almost 100 per cent of our students find employment upon graduation. The reason for that is the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy program creating demand on both the west and east coasts. We’re seeing more students applying in the areas of naval architecture and marine engineering systems design. On the shipping side, we’re fortunate because of the oil industry. In marine engineering, students are getting good jobs off the coast.”

Ms. Dutton says that roughly half the students are coming directly from high school and that in conjunction with private industry, up to $100,000 worth of scholarships are awarded annually. “We’ve structured our classes so that in our three to four year cadet diploma programs, students can continue on to get Bachelor’s degrees so they can leave with their diplomas, which is what employers are looking for. They can continue part-time because the Bachelor’s of Maritime studies or Technology are available on-line, so they can continue at their convenience, and now we have Master’s programs on top of those, so students who wish to make career changes later on can move from being at sea to shore-based jobs.

The Marine Institute is considered the most comprehensive institution of its kind in North America, with unique facilities such as a full bridge simulator and the world’s largest flume tank. Dutton says that while the majority of graduates find employment locally, a number do go on to careers with an international flavour including international shipping companies or cruise lines.

The difficulties of building and retaining a strong Canadian marine workforce

Jeffery Smith says “Canada has never become a maritime trading nation for a number of reasons including the fact that she has not been a state of registration for fleets carrying our commodities to markets. That means there is no anchor in Canada for this industry. You can look at Great Lakes shipping companies. They may repair locally, but we know they are constructing off-shore. If you look at where our licenced marine officers go, we’re exporting our talent substantially. We’re not retaining it because we don’t have a Canadian “flag” or state of registration along with labour market and qualification issues. It’s easier to go off-shore and get training and larger pay packets.”

Smith also says that Canada fails to retain its well-trained graduates. At the recent Mari-Tech Technical Conference, five Chief Executives of Great Lakes shipping lines, some Canadian and some American, were saying they are seeing a demographic problem with a retiring workforce and they are not seeing a replacement cohort. “We’re doing a fine job of training limited numbers in the Canadian setting, but seeing them go offshore.” Smith notes that “there’s a long, long history of Canada failing to cement or hold in-place its shipbuilding and repair industries – we’ve failed to have a national conversation on how to sustain those industries and their jobs.”