By Keith Norbury

Anew training centre has been established on southern Vancouver Island to serve B.C.’s re-awakened shipbuilding and repair industries. In the first two months since receiving its occupancy permit on Feb. 6, the Industrial Marine Training and Applied Research Centre had already hosted classes for nearly 1,000 students. “It was certainly something that we thought was going to take off fairly rapidly,” said Alex Rueben, the Centre’s Executive Director. “What we didn’t realize was that there are a lot of different organizations interested in what we’re doing here and who want to make use of our facilities.”

Those facilities include two 24-seat classrooms and a 12-student computer lab in a 4,000 square foot building on land leased from the Songhees First Nation adjacent to the Esquimalt Graving Dock about five kilometres from downtown Victoria. The Centre cost $1.25 million to build and equip, with $1.04 million derived from the federal government, through its Western Economic Diversification Fund. The shipbuilding industry contributed $770,000 while the B.C. government pitched in $550,000. The money remaining after construction will fund the Centre’s operating costs for the first two years of about $450,000 annually.

The purpose of the new Centre, known by its acronym IMTARC, is “to enhance productivity in the shipbuilding and ship repair industry in B.C.,” Mr. Rueben said. To do that the Centre is focusing on three main streams:

1. leasing the facility to companies in the industry to perform their training;

2. brokering training programs with third-party service providers, such as the Project Management Centre of Excellence, also based in Victoria; and

3. developing new curricula for entry-level shipbuilding training, as well as for marine estimating, and leadership training.

First Nations keen to seize shipbuilding jobs

The Centre is also working with First Nations through the Coastal Aboriginal Shipbuilding Alliance, which has received $4 million from Human Resources and Skill Development Canada on a program to train people of aboriginal descent in the shipbuilding industry. Mr. Rueben is hopeful that some of that money will find its way to IMTARC. So is Songhees First Nations Councillor Ron Sam. “I know we have members that are very keen within the next few months to get into the entry-level training program here at IMTARC,” Mr. Sam said during an “official” opening of the Centre on January 22. “And we’re going to be doing everything we can to assist our members to become successful in this school.” Such opportunities weren’t always open to First Nations people, he noted earlier in his speech, despite his people having lived, worked and played on a nearby body of water now known as the Salish Sea for thousands of years. “For many years now, too many years, we have been excluded from the economy of the sea,” Mr. Sam said. “We recognize this marine training centre as a symbol of a new beginning.”

Victoria’s marine industry couldn’t be closer

The Centre is next to the Esquimalt Graving Dock, a former Department of National Defence property, which is now home to private marine enterprises such as Victoria Shipyards, Babcock Canada, Jenkins Marine, Intercon Marine, and Esquimalt Drydock. Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt is also right next door to the graving dock. “As far as downtime for these guys is concerned, they can come on shift, they go on course there, and they’re back on shift the same day,” said Mr. Rueben who recently retired from a 35-year career in the Navy, in which he reached the rank of captain and served as naval Chief of Staff responsible for all military forces in B.C.

The idea for what became IMTARC arose while Mr. Rueben was still in the military and serving as Board Chair of the Resource Training Organization (RTO), one of six industry organizations that work under the umbrella of B.C.’s Industrial Training Authority. RTO is the financial entity that runs IMTARC, although the training centre has a separate mandate from RTO. “Our mandate really is to sustain our industry in terms of workforce development, and in applied research, whereas RTO’s mandate is to support the apprenticeships for a number of trades that are relevant to the resource sector,” Mr. Rueben explained.

New credential proposed for shipyard labourers

IMTARC is working with Industry Training Authority (ITA) to develop a new credential for shipyard labourers. At present, the only related ITA credentials are certificates of qualification for four-year apprenticeship programs. Training authorities in other provinces already award occupational certificates for such skills as heavy equipment operators, crane operators, and truck drivers, he said. “We’re out there now doing a pilot assessment for 50 shipyard labourers through four assessment tools and awarding them an ITA occupational certificate,” Mr Rueben said. He has reached out to all B.C. shipyards to send labourers to IMTARC to be assessed for such certification.

The purpose of the program, which is intended to be made available to B.C. colleges as well as online through B.C. Campus, is to provide foundation skills for the shipbuilding industry. “This is really to bring new entrants into the industry and bring them essentially to a level 1 equivalent of an apprenticeship,” he said. From there, an individual might decide to pursue an apprenticeship as a marine machinist, welder, or pipefitter, remain as a shipyard labourer, or even step into management.

Rueben is also developing four other curriculum streams: marine upgrading for tradespeople from other industries who wish to get into shipbuilding and repair; industrial marine estimating; planning and scheduling; and leadership skills targeted at the shipbuilding and ship repair industry.

Sunset postponed for B.C. shipbuilders

Malcolm Barker, Vice-President of Seaspan Victoria Shipyards, said at the Centre’s opening that it was “an exciting day for the shipbuilding industry,” not just for Vancouver Island and B.C., but for all of Canada. Only a few short years ago, the industry in B.C. was in disarray, he noted, “and was being heralded as a sunset industry.”

However, the federal government’s National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, which includes a recent pledge of $8 billion to Seaspan for building non-combat naval vessels, has helped re-invigorate the industry, he pointed out. “Clearly today’s announcement along with previous announcements, reflects that the shipbuilding and repair industry in B.C. is in good position right now and will provide long-term, well-paying jobs along with new careers for many people for the foreseeable future,” Mr. Barker said. Southern Vancouver Island already has 2,000 marine tradespeople, he said. And the area has a rich history in shipbuilding and ship repair. (In the 1960s, most of the B.C. Ferries ships were built at Victoria shipyards.) “And I’m sure in the coming years the next generation of shipbuilders will at one time or another pass through this facility and receive the specialized training that will allow our industry to become world class,” Mr. Barker said.

Two streams converge at new Centre

The shipbuilding and ship repair industries, in B.C. at least, are two separate streams, Mr. Reuben noted. About 95 per cent of the industry concentrates on repair, which includes service support, and fleet modernization. But that will change once work begins on the $8 billion in non-combat vessel contracts. Actual vessel construction will take place at Seaspan’s Vancouver Shipyards and Vancouver Drydock operations in North Vancouver, Mr. Rueben pointed out. “The set-to work of those ships in terms of commissioning them and proving their systems and all that is going to happen over here,” he said. So will ship repairs and refits of those vessels.

Hank Bekkering, General Manager of Point Hope Maritime on Victoria’s inner harbour, said his shipyard, which has about 100 employees, hasn’t been promised any work resulting from NSPS, though. “That’s a question you’ve got to ask Seaspan, whether they’re going to share any of the wealth,” Mr. Bekkering said. (Attempts to reach a spokesperson at Seaspan weren’t successful.) Mr. Bekkering also sounded less enthusiastic than others in the industry about the potential for IMTARC. “I’m waiting to see what they offer,” Mr. Bekkering said. If he thinks his employees would benefit from IMTARC’s programs, he would “absolutely” send them there for training. “It’s just at the beginning stage of their program, right?” Mr. Bekkering said.

IMTARC’S two employees run a tight ship

At present, IMTARC is a lean and mean operation with only two employees — Mr. Rueben and Michelle Brown, the Centre’s administrator, who handles the day-to-day operations. She is a teacher by training, has worked for Seaspan, and has expertise in social media. “We don’t retain a faculty,” Mr. Rueben said. “We rely on both public and private training providers to provide the faculty, the trainers.”

The programs being developed at IMTARC include those that haven’t existed before, such as marine estimating, which Mr. Rueben called “an absolutely critical skill” for a shipyard. “And it’s not taught anywhere,” Mr. Rueben said. “It’s really been passed down by generations through on-the-job experience and it’s never been formalized in a curriculum.” Specialized courses, such as estimating and scheduling and planning, will be offered at IMTARC because their small audiences wouldn’t make them cost-effective for the colleges to undertake, he said. “But where it’s entry-level training for the industry at large, that’s where they would do it at Camosun (College) or BCIT or North Island College or wherever else,” he said. For example, IMTARC will complement the new Marine, Aerospace and Resource Industry Training Centre for Training and Technology Support at Camosun College’s Interurban campus about eight kilometres to the north.

Program enables other trades to cross over

IMTARC’s marine upgrading program will provide cross-over training for experienced trades people from other industries, such as automotive mechanics, pulp and paper millwrights, and machinists and welders. Some of those training modules would be the same as for the entry-level training program. “They just haven’t worked in a marine environment,” he said. “So they need to get the safety training. They need to get environmental awareness training. They need to know the terminology that we use in a marine environment. They need to know how a shipyard functions.”

In a similar vein, the leadership program would be tailored to shipbuilding. Most leadership programs are geared toward office settings, not industry environments. “They’re not teaching to the guys that are out there on the machine shop floor or in the bowels of the ship,” Mr. Rueben said.

Because the shipyard workforce is expanding, however, there is demand for training in conflict resolution, interpersonal communications, and coaching and mentoring. While Mr. Rueben has a long background in marine engineering, he admitted he is not an expert in any of the curricula. So to develop them, he has reached out to experts in the field, such as Richard Chappell, who was once a chief estimator at the now-defunct Yarrows Shipyard in Victoria. “He’s able to speak to the industry in a language that I can’t even begin to conceive,” Mr. Rueben said.

He is now searching for a qualified expert to develop the planning and scheduling program and has placed a request for proposal on the provincial government’s BC Bid website. Planning and scheduling courses abound for the commercial construction industry. But shipbuilding and ship repair planning and scheduling require entirely different skill sets. “And nobody teaches it.”

Project would also teach management skills

Project Management Centre of Excellence, a private company, might, for example, arrange a two-day simulation course in project management or a five-day preparation course toward a project management credential, Mr. Rueben said. “Then we charge the industry a daily fee and thereby create a little bit of an extra income for us to cover our operations costs,” Mr. Rueben said.

By bringing special training to a central location, the Centre can theoretically offer programs for a fraction of what it might cost an individual shipyard to arrange such courses on its own. For example, a specialized four-day drydock training course costs $16,000. For a small shipyard to train four or five people would cost up to $4,000 per employee. But by bringing workers from several shipyards together into a class of 24, he can reduce that cost to about $1,200 per seat.

Mr. Rueben also expects the Centre to contract with BC Hazmat on training in handling hazardous goods as well as confined-space entry and fall-arrest training. “Often, because industry is so busy at getting on with its day to day operations, they don’t know what they need,” Mr Rueben said. “So you need to sort of jostle them a bit and say, ‘Hey listen, we’re offering this type of training. Look at your requirements. Does this fit into your training plan?’”