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Instrumentation apprentices in the province are saying it's becoming hard to get the hours and experience needed to earn their journeyperson papers
Workers in Newfoundland and Labrador specializing in installing, calibrating, inspecting and repairing industrial instrumentation and controls want some attention paid to the issues facing their trade.
According to a trio of journeymen who recently spoke with The Telegram, that includes a disappearing role in the construction of new industrial facilities and a lack of available hours for apprentices specializing in instrumentation technology.
“Basically, in the construction industry, we’re getting phased out,” said the first of three men to contact the paper in the past two weeks.
None of the three journeymen are being identified by name, or worksite, due to fears of retaliation.
What can be said is they are all working and collectively have professional experience covering sites from Vale’s new processing facility in Long Harbour, to small shops, to offshore oil projects.
The phase-out of their trade, the first journeyman said, is happening in part because the work instrumentation people are trained for is increasingly being assigned to people in other trades.
In particular, he said, work has been going to pipefitters and electricians who, he claimed, have less knowledge of instrumentation.
“The pipefitters actually put off this one-week course. It’s called instrument fitting … after that one-week course, they’re going out and doing the instrumentation work that we’d normally do,” he said.
A write-up on instrumentation technology by staff at the College of the North Atlantic describes the importance of industrial instrumentation.
“This instrumentation makes sure that all machines in a plant are safe and running correctly,” it states. “(The instruments) may regulate the water flow in equipment or check the air quality in a mine.”
The college offers a one-year program for instrumentation technicians. There is also a three-year program for more advanced instrumentation engineering technology.
Elsewhere in Canada, including at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, the trade is taught through multi-year programs.
Training includes the installation of instruments, but that work is being covered off by pipefitters and electricians, according to the first journeyman who spoke with The Telegram.
“I’m no rat, by no means. I’m a guy (who) grew up in a part of town where a rat is considered a very bad person. Not liked at all,” he said.
“(But) we’ve got our own local people not getting out and people coming from all other provinces that shouldn’t be out there with just a one-week course.”
He said he has taken the issue up with supervisors, union reps and, most recently, representatives in the provincial government.
“I mean, you shouldn’t be able to come over and do my work unless you’re trained in it. But that’s happening offshore, that’s happening out West, that’s happening in Long Harbour and Bull Arm. The bosses up there, they don’t really care so long as it gets done,” he said.
To transfer more work to electricians and pipefitters seems like a natural move, in some ways.
There are few instrument specialists compared with the thousands of pipefitters and electricians in the skilled trades labour pool.
Instrument tubing — installing the line carrying pressured materials up to the instrument panel — appears, on the face of it, a natural extension of other pipe installation work. And, an “instrument fitting” course allows pipefitters to expand on their base knowledge.
For unionized worksites, instrumentation people already fall under either the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 2330 or the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters, Sprinklefitters and Service Techs — “the pipefitters union” — (UA) Local 740.
Yet, the transfer means less opportunity for home-grown instrumentation apprentices, a second journeyman said.
He referred to the Long Harbour project as a lost opportunity to get more instrumentation apprentices through their required work hours — providing more instrument experts for the next big jobs on tap.
“I know when I finished school I couldn’t get a job here. Back then, there wasn’t a whole lot of work. But now they got all these projects and it seems like they’re still having a hard time as apprentices getting these jobs,” he said.
There was another reason to get more instrumentation specialists on work sites, according to a third journeyman, who called the paper on hearing about the brewing story.
“We’re always the last to get on a site. … You always come in and do commissioning and that kind of stuff and you can see a lot of the mistakes. I’m not sure who’s responsible — if it was pipefitters, or electricians, or even apprentices. It just needs to be fixed,” he said.
“And that comes right from the beginning. If we had instrument techs installing, you know, starting at the ground level, then we’d have more instrument techs. We’d have more guys doing stuff right.”
Not aware of the problem
“I’m a 41-year member electrician and I’m a business manager now for about a year of the IBEW 2330, but I’ve never heard tell of the electricians doing more than the instrument guys — doing any of their work,” said Will John Doyle, speaking with The Telegram Friday.
He said about 300 instrumentation specialists are in that union and, outside of the apprentices, they are flat-out with work.
“We just had a call, a request for manpower from Fluor, on the Long Harbour site for a foreman instrumentation guy and a journeyperson instrumentation guy and apprentice, and the only thing I can fill right now, through my members, is the apprentice instrumentation guy,” he said.
He acknowledged the complaint about getting instrument apprentices more hours, but said it is not something he can necessarily address.
“If a contractor calls the union for a journeyperson, I don’t have the authority to say to that contractor, ‘I’m sending you an apprentice.’ He’s paying the bill at the end of the day,” he said, suggesting the provincial government look at the issue of apprentice hours as it applies to instrumentation specialists.
The province recently launched a new pilot journeyperson mentorship program to help apprentices get their hours.
Meanwhile, calls to the pipefitters union UA Local 740 received no response as of press time.
As for the attempts by the instrumentation specialists to seek satisfaction through provincial government representatives, a spokesman for the provincial Department of Advanced Education and Skills, reached Thursday, said the woes of instrumentation techs were new to the department — apparently having not yet made their way to the relevant departmental personnel, from the individual members of the House of Assembly to whom the complaints were filed.
Further comments and concerns around safety, especially one applicable to the offshore, were raised by the technicians. These were put to representatives of the oil companies operating offshore Newfoundland and to the offshore regulator, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board.
The Telegram will have more on that in Monday’s print and digital editions.