Disappearing trade

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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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.


Numbers game

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.  



Organizations: College of the North Atlantic, British Columbia Institute of Technology, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers United Association of Plumbers Sprinklefitters and Service Techs Department of Advanced Education and Skills Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board.The Telegram

Geographic location: Long Harbour, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

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Recent comments

  • Ken Young
    April 05, 2016 - 10:23

    I am a second year instrumentation and control tech and the only way to get an instrumentation job here in NL or any other part of Canada is if you got a friend or a dam good contact to get you into a job. I was four years before I got my first instrumentation position. And a friend was the person who got me that job. I got laid off last may and since then I haven't been able to find work in my field. To all the Instrumentation techs out there, Good Luck.

    • Anon
      August 24, 2016 - 14:13

      It's the same for regular electricians too. My bf has been struggling to get his foot in the door at all because he doesn't know anyone. He puts resumes out everyday, he goes to businesses and applies each day to ibew jobs. Nothing. I know 2 people who know someone who works in bull arm and they got jobs as first years and have had a job now for a year +. I do understand it, but it definitely isn't very fair.

  • Instrumentguy
    March 21, 2013 - 10:13

    I have worked as an apprentice in instrumentation and have worked along side pipe fitters and electricians on the construction phase of projects. I know first hand that instrument fitting is something that can be learned on the job, but only if a proper mentorship is provided. A one week course is fine if they are working directly under journeymen, but not under other pipe fitters. My main concern with this article is how misleading it is about what an instrument tech does. Fitting and terminating is such a minor part of what the field encompasses that to lead people to believe it is a "disappearing trade" because pipe fitters are doing some of this work is like saying the business administrator will be laid off because the photocopier is broken. Instrumentation is the art and science of incredibly complex automation schemes and encompasses mechanical and electronic fields. This article correctly draws notice that work suitable for apprentices is being wrongly given to other trades, but it is grossly misleading about the fate of the trade.

  • saelcove
    March 19, 2013 - 10:57

    yepi forgot only newfoundlanders want a few years work, maybe you should man up and more where the work is

  • JDavis
    March 17, 2013 - 09:00

    Hey Saelcove...."Mosy people" are not you. A few years is enough to get through the apprenticeship, get some experience and move on to a better location and rate of pay. Most people do not spend their entire lives at one job. Those days are long gone. At the present time part time or contract work is all that is available here in NL. Even public service workers have to reapply for their own jobs at the end of each contract, facing being bumped out by others. Some companies will only hire on casual first then you move to part-time status. Full time with benefits is not easy to come by. Constantly redefining ones resume is a reality. Unlike a job for life, which is not as common anymore.

  • Blair Brookfield
    March 17, 2013 - 00:00

    “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. It's really annoying when these union types start mouthing off like an Italian mobster.

  • perry cooper
    March 16, 2013 - 19:48

    I'm writing this comment as a concerned parent of a first year apprentice instrumention tech.My son graduated from this course June/2012(College of The North Atlantic, Gander campus). He has, and continues to, apply for apprenticeship postions with companies that advertise for techs as well as companies that do not advertise, He has applied across Canada. Attached to each resume is a copy of the governments apprenticeship funding policy so the companies he applies to will know that he is elgible for funding assistance.He joined the IBEW union shortly after graduating and continues to pays his membership dues. This, however,has proven to be a fruitless effort. He has not received a reply or phone call for an interview to date. He does get sparse replies showing some of the e-mail applications have been opened. My son is a person that wants to work at his choosen profession.He does not want to go on a waiting list so he can go back to school and do something else that he didn't want to do in the first place.It is very frustrating for him and us when he cannot get his foot in the door to start his appenticeship. Our goverment keeps advertising the ongoing and the upcoming shortages within the trades professions.I find this to be very misleading for young people like my son. My wife has e-mailed our member about this issue and the reply we received was about what I expected, refering him to resource help sites or jobs sites. This is not good enough.My son has been employed full time since he left school with a fill in job and continues to live at home so he can save money for the inevitable trip that a lot of Newfoundlanders have made over the years to the land of opportunity-- Alberta. I challenge any company that reads this extended comment to post a reply indicating where my son can apply for a job and actually be contacted for an interview. I would like to have these comments posted in your newspaper, on radio or tv, but I guess that would be asking for a lot.This is an issue that needs to be brought to the forefront of our government.They need to stop believing their own press and realize this is a major issue.

  • bob the builder
    March 16, 2013 - 13:55

    Its amazing how much these trades unions take you money for your out of work dues but ignore you when there is work in your field. What a slap in the face , IBEW looks after electricians and the UA looks after pipefitters, instrumentation is a real gray area where people in those trades wanna do your work. They think a bit of tubing or running 24 volts DC is instrumentation , where as it is much more complex and putting these unskilled workers out there to do out our work is plain ignorance and leads to bad work being done. I hope some employers can stand up and recognize this is not acceptable.

  • InstrumentTech
    March 16, 2013 - 10:41

    Love to see a response from a few companies and unions on this story, I'm sure they would try to put a great spin on it. It's too bad they government can't step in, seeing how much they waste on promoting the trades

  • saelcove
    March 16, 2013 - 09:11

    Mosy people are looking for more than a few years work