BY SHANNON MONEO - A $30 million expansion of a Victoria area shipyard is expected to require 150-300 more skilled workers when complete.
Despite a doubling of the current workforce, the president of the Ralmax Group of Companies doesn’t think it will be difficult to attract suitable skilled employees.
“We’ll be hiring the trades necessary. We’ve never had a problem finding trades,” said Ian Maxwell with Ralmax Group, which includes Point Hope Maritime (PHM) and United Engineering.
Ralmax will need fabricators, welders, machinists, pipefitters, mechanics, shipwrights, painters and blasters.
He said there won’t be any need to go off-shore to find workers.
He was bullish on the reputation of the Victoria area, called it an awesome place to work and live.
The company bought about a 12-acre piece of industrial harbour land in Victoria that it had been leasing from the Province of B.C.
The deal was part of a land swap, which saw the City of Victoria give up the harbour land to the province, in exchange for downtown pieces of land the city had been eyeing.
Maxwell’s purchase, which gives him about 28 acres total of harbour land, close to downtown Victoria, has opened the door to the $30-million expansion. It includes demolition of aged structures, construction of a new metal fabrication shop and the building of additional spur lines to bolster the existing marine railway.
The expansion will increase the shipyard’s capacity by at least 30 per cent.
Maxwell, 60, who got his start as an 18-year-old truck driver, had a handful of employees in 2003 and now employs about 150 people.
He said that companies must pay well if they expect to attract workers to a region with high house prices.
Recently, the company surveyed a cross-section of 30 employees and found that the average wages and benefits per employee totaled about $100,000 per year for the company’s shipyard workers, Maxwell said.
The president of the B.C. Building Trades is glad that the province decided to sell the harbour land to Ralmax because the ability to support more work means that long-term, good-paying jobs will be created.
“Keeping industrial land available in downtown Victoria provides quality, family-oriented jobs,” said Lee Loftus.
He compared it to Burnaby, where he lives, where industrial land has disappeared and been replaced with high-priced condos.
In the last five years, it’s been difficult for B.C. employers to find certain trades, particularly welders, Loftus said, since many have gone to Northern B.C. or Alberta, where wages are higher.
But in B.C., a lot of pulp and saw mills have closed or downsized, meaning that skilled tradespeople are available.
Workers from Eastern Canada have also come west to plug some holes.
It’s a short-term solution though, Loftus said.
“In the next five years, they’ll be a lot of retirements. Employers need to spend more time in training,” he said.
“Ralmax is in a good position. They have steady employment, good contracts.”
When Maxwell considers employees, he looks for one key ability.
“In our industry, education is important, but work ethic is most important,” Maxwell said.
‘If someone is reliable and has a good work ethic, there’s lots of opportunities.”
At Ralmax, apprentices are hired and given a chance to see what they want to do while giving the company a chance to see what they’re capable of.
After being connected with a journeyman or apprenticeships, new employees are assisted with navigating the training requirements.
Ralmax also has its own training program, developed in partnership with the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations.
Ralmax and the two First Nations launched Salish Sea Industrial Services, with majority ownership held by the two First Nations.
The company, which does dredging, pile driving, construction, demolition and maintenance, recruits and trains First Nations members.
Since 2012, 45 First Nations employees have been hired and the retention rate is 69 per cent.
Much of Ralmax’s expansion hinges on B.C.’s liquified natural gas (LNG) industry.
Maxwell said Point Hope Maritime is well-positioned to install and maintain ships that will be converting to LNG.
PHM completed a recent $20-million retrofit of BC Ferries’ Tachek, which included introduction of a hybrid engine to prepare for B.C. Ferries’ plan to convert their fleet to LNG.
And United Engineering has secured one LNG-related contract, is bidding on others and can also provide services in Kitimat.
One factor holding up Ralmax’s planned expansion is the Johnson Street Bridge project, which replaces the aging structure.
“Everything we want to do is subject to completion of the new bridge,” Maxwell said.
His company wants to sit down with the City of Victoria and discuss how work on the bridge can be done most expeditiously and how PHM could possibly assist the process.
Maxwell anticipates Ralmax’s full-scale expansion won’t fully start until fall 2014.