P.E.I.’s aerospace industry is taking the province’s economy to new heights
Ask most Canadians what drives P.E.I.’s economy, and they’ll likely look to the land and sea. And they wouldn’t be wrong; in 2013, the food sector made up 53 per cent of the Island’s exports. But according to a recent report, it’s time to start directing some of our attention towards the skies.
According to the 2015 Economic Impact Analysis for Prince Edward Island’s Aerospace and Defense Industry, the aerospace industry generated $405 million in 2013, contributing $106 million to the province’s GDP—not including any revenue generated by supply chain and induced economic activity. The island is also a major industry player from a national perspective. The analysis further states that the industry employed 1,364 people in 2013 (including jobs created by supply chain and induced spending demands), boosting tax revenues by about $29 million.
This is significant—especially considering that the island’s aerospace industry is only about 23 years old. Until 1989, Summerside’s Slemon Park (now home base for a number of aviation and aerospace companies) was a Canadian Forces Base. The aerospace industry didn’t take root until a couple of years later, when the provincial and federal governments teamed up for a prospecting mission and brought home P.E.I.’s first two aerospace companies: Bendix Avelex (now Honeywell Engines, Systems and Services) and Atlantic Turbine International (now Vector Aerospace ).
These days, Vector employs about 490 people and Honeywell employs about 100. The industry, which has grown to include almost a dozen companies, has branched out from its Slemon Park core, with businesses establishing themselves in other areas of Summerside and Charlottetown.
“There are between 900 and 950 people employed in the aerospace and defense sector now,” says Lennie Kelly, executive director of the Aerospace & Defence Association of P.E.I. (ADPEI). “So that’s replaced the 1,000 jobs that were lost at CFB Summerside.”
According to Kelly, about 90 per cent of those people are Islanders, which is impressive in terms of retention, especially in a region that struggles to keep its youth.
“The other 10 per cent would be made up by non-Islanders, but there’s a certain skills package required at senior levels that just aren’t here in PEI,” says Kelly. “Milling technicians, machinists, that sort of thing.”
3 Points Aviation is a Mississauga company that bases its manufacturing, repair, and sales team in Charlottetown. According to director of sales Eric Richard, things have been going well overall since they arrived in P.E.I. in 2010, but they’re having a challenge filling the skills gap that’s present in some areas of their work. “Some aspects of what we do, we can fill the jobs here,” says Richard. “But in some of the more skilled aspects, it’s a real struggle. Finding people to do CNC machining, for example—that’s an industry problem. We can’t find skilled labours with 10-plus years of experience. All those people are already working somewhere—they aren’t floating around.”
As a result, they actually have to search outside of the continent for the people they need. Currently, their 60-person staff has representatives from about 10 different nationalities, according to Richard.
Vector Aerospace, on the other hand, is having a better time of it. As the largest employer within the province’s aerospace sector, they attribute their ability to attract qualified employees to a couple of different things.
“We have a very good relationship with Holland College, to the point where some of our employees have actually instructed their gas turbine course,” says Vector president Jeff Poirier. “This gives us good insight into the caliber of the students coming through the program. We also invest heavily in apprenticeship internally. We’ll take a few additional people onto the team, knowing that in time, we’ll need them. We have an 18-24 month apprenticeship program so that when we need additional people, they’re ready to go.”
For both of these organizations, building awareness of P.E.I.’s aerospace industry will be critical to their future success. According to Richard, the industry itself needs to amp up its collaboration with local colleges, universities and high schools.
The industry is also putting a big push on creating an awareness of all that P.E.I. has to offer potential residents. The ADPEI website talks up P.E.I.’s “skilled and loyal workforce,” “customized incentive packages,” and “world-class strategic infrastructure.”
On the other hand, Richard emphasized the importance of convincing workers to come to the island. The island needs to ensure that there are strong social supports in place—and that means schools, doctors, and dentists. For a province with a sparse, widespread population, this can be a challenge.
“Ultimately, our job is to create an acceptable pool of skilled labour,” says ADPEI’s Lennie Kelly. “We do that in a number of ways, but one of the challenges we’re aware of is the lack of awareness of the industry itself. So we do a number of presentations about the industry in all the high schools across the island, to tell them what the industry is about, what it does, and what career opportunities may be available.”
Usually, they’ll ask the younger employees of their member companies—former students who only graduated a few years ago—to present the talk. They’ve found that this approach has improved the engagement and interest level.
ADPEI also goes to a variety of community festivals, attracting a crowd by bringing along an airplane simulator. Once they have their captive audience, they’re able to use the opportunity to talk about the aerospace industry.
And they’re working to take these efforts even further. Currently, they’re in early talks with the school board about initiating an aerospace curriculum within the trade programs in the various schools, and maybe even adding some aerospace curriculum in grades eight and nine. It’s something that’s already proved successful on a smaller scale.
“Three Oaks High School (in Summerside) has an aviation class that’s available for credit,” says Kelly. “They have a couple of engines that they disassemble and put back together during the class, similar to what Vector Aerospace would do with their own engines.”
Despite the growing pains, aerospace in P.E.I. looks like it has a long, bright future.
“Ten years ago, if you asked anyone on the street in P.E.I. what comes to mind when they think of aerospace, they’d say ‘Air Canada, and my uncle’s a pilot,’” says Richard. “Now it’s ‘Air Canada, Vector, and my uncle works at Honeywell.’”
Based on what Poirier has to say, it’s only going to get better from here.
“We’re starting a facility expansion that we announced three months ago,” he says. “We’re getting a fourth test cell (a machine for testing aircraft engines). This will de-risk the organization in case one of the older test cells goes down for any length of time. And it will allow us the capacity to go after more contracts.”
In fact, they’re already bidding on contracts for when the test cell is completed at the beginning of 2016, which will keep the company on track to meet their targeted organic growth goals. They’re also working on a couple of other expansions that could require anywhere from 25 to 70 additional employees over the next three years.
The pun may be a groaner, but it’s an accurate description nonetheless: things are looking up for P.E.I. aerospace.