Shipbuilding resurgence in Thunder Bay

·4 min read

THUNDER BAY, ONT. — Fabmar Metal Inc. and Heddle Shipyard have brought shipbuilding back to Northwestern Ontario with the first project underway at the Thunder Bay shipyard.

Work began in July on a ship repair project involving the construction of three modules, a fuel tank and a bull walk — or ship railing — making this the first time in two decades that the shipyard has seen any shipbuilding action.

Fabmar Metals Inc, which is now part of Heddle Shipyards company and the manufacturer on the project, continues to move their tooling and equipment from their plants on Pacific Avenue into their new digs at the shipyard’s assembly plant.

Dale Ryynanen, president of Fabmar Metals, says relocating into the assembly plant is going slower than they would like because it is a bigger venture than expected. Structural work, which involved filling in large holes in the fabrication floor area, has been done to the plant to ready it for the incoming equipment.

“We are in the process of modernizing and upgrading,” said Ryynanen, adding that “good-sized projects” are being bid on for work at the site this winter.

“We’ll be looking for labour for that.”

Ted Kirkpatrick, Heddle’s director of business, says there are “lots of opportunities” that they’re bidding on and along with the whole process of moving Fabmar into the shipyard will make for a busy season ahead.

“We’re looking forward to a busy winter, that’s for sure,” Kirkpatrick said.

“We see a tremendous opportunity with the federal government vessels under 1,000 gross tonne — new build program under the National Shipbuilding Strategy. We feel that Heddle is really well positioned to capture that.”

He explained that effectively it’s like working on a small vessel fleet that comprises vessels between 30 and 50 metres, connecting with both the Canadian Coast Guard and Navy, which are part of the National Shipbuilding Strategy. That project is yet to be allocated to any shipyard.

“We feel that the entire organization, Thunder Bay included, is in a very strong position to capture a significant portion of that work,” he said, adding this is unlikely to happen this winter but is definitely on the horizon.

Meanwhile, bidding is going normally for regular maintenance winter work for their commercial clients.

“Looking forward, our focus is really on the small coast guard and Navy new-build programs,” he said.

“The project that we’re working on now, we hope is one of many to come. It was just a really neat thing to see parts of a ship being built at the shipyard in Thunder Bay when it hadn’t been done for so long . . . and we’re finally doing that again.”

Kirkpatrick says the immediate goal is to grow the Thunder Bay operation with Fabmar Metals leading the charge.

The pinch of the worker shortage is taking its toll on the manufacturing and trades industry including Fabmar, and Ryynanen says the problem is huge.

“Put it this way. I had four guys from Newfoundland here for the last two weeks and two guys from Heddle and southern Ontario to help us get the modules out because we couldn’t find enough weld support,” he said. “Training is the solution to the issue.”

In 2021, Heddle Shipyards received $8 million to create training and educational programs and future (on-site) training in the shipbuilding industry, but Ryynanen says it’s a lengthy process to implement the program criteria. He says there is a team actively working on building the curriculum to create a program at the college level, which includes Niagara, Mohawk and Confederation colleges.

The two organizations, Heddle and Fabmar, are creating their own staff through specific training programs, but finding learners or apprentices is not easy and has to be engaged at the high school level.

“Welding has always been a blue-collar job,” Ryynanen said. “It appears that the new generation of parents don’t want their kids to be in a blue-collar industry and steered them to be much more academic. Trades that include mechanical, electrical, plumbing, pipe fitting, boiler making, steel repair, or ship repair are ongoing and somehow we have to get parents to understand that it’s not a bad thing. It’s as simple as that, and you can make a good honest living.”

For now, Ryynanen says he has a good crew of about seven “young guys” who are on the job training while working with experienced workers and things are progressing well.

“We have a great young crew right now and with a good mix of some experienced guys will be very healthy in the future,” Ryynanen said.

Kirkpatrick added that this project has allowed them to train and grow their Thunder Bay team.

“It’s been a really positive development for us and we just hope that we can keep that momentum moving forward,” he said.

Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal