SEASPAN Shipyards' workforce will almost quadruple over the next four years as the company pours more than $150 million into modernizing its North Vancouver yard.
Jonathan Whitworth, CEO of Seaspan, was invited to appear before City of North Vancouver council Monday to discuss the implications of its $8-billion federal shipbuilding contract on local transportation, housing and development.
"This is going to be a boom," he said. "It's not like building a (liquefied natural gas) plant or a mine, where there are 1,500 jobs for about two years. This is work for decades. It's like winning the 2010 Olympics every two years."
"On Oct. 19, when we announced that contract, there was an uproar at Seaspan, but there was also an uproar at the Tim Hortons and the hotels," he said.
Seaspan's current North Shore workforce is 338 people, Whitworth said. That will double by 2014 and then double again by 2016. The great majority of those new jobs will be skilled trade positions. Whitworth said his company is working
with the province and trade schools to train the necessary shipwrights and welders and machinists. The challenge, he said, is that a long run of lean years has left a gap in the workforce.
"If you imagine those guys on top of their game in the 1970s, they are all enjoying their retirement now. So we are recruiting worldwide. We are going to the U.S. and we're going to Europe."
Whitworth said his office was snowed in with thousands of resumés in the weeks after the federal contract was announced. With actual shipbuilding probably about a year out, there is time to coordinate recruitment in concert with First Nations bands and the various waterfront trade unions. Much of the overseas hiring, he said, will be for professional and executive positions.
"We just hired a vicepresident who worked on a destroyer program in Britain, and he has experience we literally cannot find or buy. So he's bringing his family over here."
So far, Seaspan has firm orders for seven ships, starting with three 55-metre offshore fisheries science vessels, followed by a slightly larger oceanographic vessel. While these ships are being built, he said, the yard will be prepared for the construction of two or three 185-metre support ships and at least one polar icebreaker.
In the recent federal budget, Ottawa committed to spending a further $5.2 billion on the Canadian Coast Guard. At this point it's unclear, Whitworth said, how much of that money will go towards shipbuilding as opposed to helicopters or other equipment.
"We do know that the coast guard has approximately 24 ships to replace," he said. "What's interesting is that our friends at Davie Shipyards in Quebec City are now suggesting they should be awarded vessels from this package."
Davie was left with the short straw last year after Seaspan and Halifax's Irving Shipyards won the two long-term contracts available through the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy.
"We will be fighting as strongly as we did for the two years leading up to the bid to make sure those vessels stay in North Vancouver," said Whitworth.
Closer to home, councillors asked Whitworth for his views on the proposed multi-use development at Harbourside, just to the east of the shipyard. Some members of council have previously said the vacant land would be needed as a staging area for materials, and that residential uses would clash with Seaspan's industrial operations.
Whitworth quashed both of these ideas, and said materials would arrive at the yard on a "just-in-time" basis and so no new footprint would be needed. Ancillary trades and fabrication shops can continue to operate where they are and move their components via road, rail or the harbour.
Coun. Rod Clark quoted a 2010 letter from Seaspan expressing concern with Concert Properties' plans for Harbourside.
Whitworth said he had spoken with Concert and was satisfied that any new homeowners would sign a covenant acknowledging their neighbours' right to make a racket.
"We support it," said Whitworth. "I think it will be positive as long as (residential units) aren't right on the western edge. We need a gap in between, like an office building."
Dust also should not be an issue, he said, as the modernized shipyard will be largely enclosed.
"The bad old days of shipbuilding are gone." Transportation will be a key issue to resolve with the City and District of North Vancouver, Whitworth said.
"I think we have to. What's the average home price now? We pay very well, but folks aren't going to be able to afford (to live here). So we have to figure out how to make that work."
Seaspan will conduct traffic and parking studies as they ramp up their work, and is in talks with the district to build an overpass to replace the at-grade Pemberton Avenue rail crossing that currently generates daily traffic snarl-ups.
"From a safety and productivity point of view, that's unacceptable," said Whitworth.
Seaspan will be designing the ships and obtaining environmental reviews and building permits in the coming months before starting work on facilities towards the end of the year.
The first seven ships will be built from 2013 to 2019, hopefully to be followed by up to two dozen more.