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A shipshape future for the North Shore?
Less than 72 hours after inking a deal with Ottawa worth billions in boats and decades in billable hours for his employees, Seaspan Marine president Brian Carter is already talking about a future after the federal shipbuilding contract.
Carter himself hasn't been long in the captain's chair, only taking the helm of one of the country's largest shipbuilding operations last month after helping the company with its bid to build $8 billion in non-combat vessels and infrastructure for the federal government.
It'll still be years before the first batch of boats — three research and patrol vessels for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and one oceanographic science vessel — are christened in the waters of Burrard Inlet.
That fleet will be followed by at least two, and possibly three, Royal Canadian Navy joint support ships and, the real star of the Seaspan contract, a Canadian Coast Guard polar icebreaker, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, due for completion in 2017.
But while the construction of those boats is entering the design phase, it's the $150 million in new infrastructure going in on the dry ground here in North Vancouver that will matter most to the long-term success of the community's once booming shipbuilding industry.
At an estimated 190 metres long and 24 metres wide, the naval joint support ships will be the biggest to come out of Seaspan and maybe the largest to come off the North Shore, at least since the Second World War. For those and the other vessels, Seaspan is building a massive new grand block assembly building and a new rail launch system as part of its yard-wide upgrades.
"The whole thing is built around making sure we can efficiently build this [joint support ship] without overbuilding the facility for the future," Carter told The Outlook in an interview at his Pemberton Avenue office. "We can't build this white elephant that we put a couple ships through and then never use again."
To meet those needs, when ground is broken on the new yard by the end of this year, it will be for some highly adaptable multi-use buildings to keep things fluid and flexible as future work will dictate.
Besides maintaining Seaspan's own shipping fleet and doing the third-party repairs that are already a mainstay at the shipyard, that future work could involve things like contracts with BC Ferries.
"One of the big problems in shipbuilding is the workforce goes up for a project and then comes down," Carter said. "And you lose them when it comes down and you don't get them back. So you're training, training, training them and then you get rid of them."
To smooth out that employment arc while also positioning North Vancouver as a shipbuilding centre on par with global players in Europe and Asia, Seaspan will also vie for contracts similar to the federal non-combat contract, but from foreign governments as well.
That spells a bright future for not only the estimated 1,000 new hires Seaspan will be making in North Vancouver alone — growing its present workforce from 200 full-time employees to 1,200 by 2016 — but for the country's shipbuilding and marine manufacturing industries at large.
The current non-combat contract is expected to produce three times its value to Seaspan in inducements to related businesses in Canada.
"We're going to do what we can to fabricate components and buy equipment in the Canadian maritime industry," Carter said.
In fact, much of those regional benefits are mandated within the Seaspan contract under Canadian defence and security procurement regulations.
In addition, the contract requires that Seaspan take half of one per cent of the contract's value from the company's own coffers and invest it in marine-related technologies in Canada to develop the shipbuilding ecosystem here over time.
With the ink hardly dry on the federal non-combat contract, it may seem a long way out to be already looking to foreign shores for bigger and better deals. But for Carter, he says that's when he'll know Seaspan's and Canada's ship has come in.
"When you hear of us exporting a vessel to another government, that's when we've got there."