By Keith Norbury

Unionized longshore workers in B.C. who handle breakbulk and project cargo will soon have a new training centre to hone their skills, away from the bustle and chaos of the docks.

BC Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA), in collaboration with International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada (ILWU), is establishing the new training centre on Mitchell Island in the north arm of the Fraser River, in the heart of Greater Vancouver.

A centrepiece of the $10 million centre is a $1.5 million 30-tonne Liebherr ship’s pedestal crane, which is expected to arrive in June and be ready for training by September 1, said John Beckett, BCMEA’s Vice-President of Training, Safety and Recruitment.

“It’s specifically to train them on how to load breakbulk,” Beckett said in a March phone interview from Newcastle upon Tyne in the U.K., where he went to check out the brand new crane before it was shipped to B.C. “But that particular type of crane is also an entry-level position for other cranes such as the key cranes, which you’ll find to move containers. So most of our container (crane) operators have spent time on a pedestal crane first.”

The new training centre – at 11000 Twigg Pl., Richmond – will also boast 30-tonne forklifts, a bulldozer, a front-end loader, and heavy handlers used for moving containers. Most of the equipment will be brought in from smaller existing BCMEA training sites scattered around B.C.’s lower mainland.

BCMEA’s Board of Directors made the recommendation a few years ago to find and buy land to build a centre, to consolidate much of its training in one location. The decision also coincided with the pending expiry of a subsidized rent agreement with Port Metro Vancouver on a downtown Vancouver site. About $7 million of the cost of the new centre was to purchase the 4.7 acres on Mitchell Island. Bel Construction recently won the contract to build the centre. Construction started on March 18.

Employer and union work together on training

While Beckett is responsible for the overall training, he works in partnership with ILWU locals in B.C. to develop the curricula and deliver the training. Rob Ashton, First Vice-President of ILWU Canada, the umbrella group for all the locals, said the training program is a joint venture with employers, from the planning to the training itself. “It’s longshore workers training longshore workers,” Mr. Ashton said.

The new centre will benefit the union’s membership by giving them more hands-on experience before they get to the job site, he said. Crane training now, for example, typically happens on a multi-million dollar simulator at BCMEA’s downtown Vancouver training centre. While he described that machine as “a pretty cool little toy,” he expects the actual ship’s pedestal crane to provide a more realistic experience. “It’ll get the longshore workers used to the actual handles,” he said. “Right now they go from the simulator to the ship. They get on board the vessel and some of our companies aren’t that comfortable with them running the gear when they’re doing heavy lifts.”

A worker inexperienced with a piece of equipment tends to be slower, not to mention more nervous. By learning on a crane away from an active work site and pressure to produce quickly, a worker can practice without fear of injuring someone or damaging cargo. “If they have the tractors on the site, which I believe they will, they can run the tractors underneath the crane and they can get the crane operator used to picking up loads off tractors, and landing loads on tractors,” Mr. Ashton said. “If they run the new employees through that facility, then they can get used to working with hooking up loads and unhooking loads. So the benefit to the industry, if it’s done properly, I think is positive all the way round.”

Terminal operator calls new centre a “terrific” idea

Ron Anderson, CEO of Squamish Terminals on Howe Sound, about 32 nautical miles north of Vancouver, called the training centre a “terrific” concept that will be great for employees and employers alike. He said that his employees would “absolutely” be sent to Mitchell Island to train on the new crane. “I have a pedestal crane vessel in here right now,” Mr. Anderson said during a recent interview. “We have a gantry on one side and a pedestal on the other. It’s good for the employees to be able to understand both and operate both.”

Mitchell Island’s new crane is a critical piece of training apparatus because ship’s pedestal cranes, as their name implies, are aboard ships. And when ships are in port, their cranes are in use, loading and unloading cargo. “So it’s rather difficult for me to train because the crane comes with the ship and it leaves with the ship,” said Mr. Beckett, who joined BCMEA as Director of Safety in 2007 and took charge of training, safety and recruitment the next year.

Having a land-based ship’s pedestal crane isn’t unprecedented, he said. A training centre in Antwerp, Belgium, has one. So does the port at Corner Brook, Nfld., although it is used for production. About the only lifts the Mitchell Island crane won’t replicate are when a ship uses two cranes to make a lift, Mr. Ashton said. Learning those complex lifts will still come with experience.

“They’re going to be able to learn to swing,” Mr. Ashton said. “They’re going to be able to learn how to move their boom while they are hoisting up and down, to land it perfectly.” The new centre will also train workers on other equipment – such as lift trucks, bomb carts, and tractor trailers – all often used in loading and unloading breakbulk and project cargo. “There’s talk about getting a dock gantry, but that’s years down the road I imagine,” said Mr. Ashton, whose union locals represent about 5,000 workers in B.C., with another 500 or so belonging to foremen’s local 514.

Training evolves to stress competence

Last year, about 2,500 workers took longshore training programs, about half of those in skill-rating programs of a week or longer, Mr. Beckett said. In the last few years, there has been a move toward competency-based training as opposed to time-based training, he noted.

“The conversation with our unions over time has changed,” he said. “They never really had very good materials when I first got here. No fault of theirs. It was really the fault of management. So most of the training materials were a couple of pieces of paper, no real curriculum, no source material, no metrics that had to be passed along the way.”

Today’s training uses a delivery plan with exit points during the program where the trainee must meet certain standards before proceeding to the next point. “Or we do additional work with them to make sure they can continue and succeed,” Mr. Beckett said.

Mr. Ashton, however, said he wasn’t sure what Mr. Beckett meant by competency training. “If he means a six week training period and a guy can pass in four weeks, (if) that happens, that happens,” Mr. Ashton said. He stressed that training is still based on seniority, with senior people having first dibs on training. To be eligible for training in one job also often requires having already been certified in another job. And the details of those prerequisites vary from local to local. For example, to become a locomotive operator, one might need to be a switchman. “To become a dock gantry operator you have to be, depending on what local, of course, a top setter,” Mr. Ashton said.

Despite differing interpretations regarding competency training, the union and the employer are in tune when it comes to an emphasis on safety. A joint industry safety committee made up of union and employers representatives devises rules and practices that apply across the waterfront. “Years ago we never wore work boots or high-viz (safety) vests,” Mr. Ashton said. “That came out of the joint safety (committee). So anything that’s industry-wide usually comes out of that group.” Mr. Anderson has also noticed “pretty good strides towards improving the safety records, no question about that,” and he expects the new Mitchell Island facility to “complement everybody’s drive to improve safety.” It will accomplish that, he said, by moving the majority of initial training off the docks and into an environment where workers can get used to the equipment at a less stressful pace. That’s the latest evolution from the days when training was all done on the fly. When Ashton first started as a longshore worker out of high school in 1994, formal training was well established, although “still rough around the edges,” he said. “Now it’s evolved into probably one of the best training programs, I would have to say, where it’s jointly run, in the world,” Mr. Ashton said.