by Heidi Riley
The aerospace and defence industry is an important part of PEI’s economy. Today, 2,200 people work directly and indirectly in the sector, which is the third-highest contributor to the province’s GDP.
The Sea to Sky Conference, held in Summerside in August, was not only a celebration of the industry’s development on PEI but also a recounting of how a damaged local economy was revitalized.
In 1989, when it was announced that the Canadian Forces Base in Summerside would close, the loss of over 670 military personnel was a major blow to the economy of the town.
But a panel of speakers at the conference who had a vision for a new future for the former base say the closure turned out to be an incredible job-creating opportunity for both Summerside and the province.
Allan Campbell, Provincial Director, Atlantic Canada Aerospace & Defence Association, summed up the history of PEI’s aerospace industry with a quote from business management guru Peter Drucker: ‘Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”
One of those decisions was made by Atlantic Turbines Inc., a company specializing in the maintenance and repair of gas turbine engines, when it established its operations at Slemon Park. It started with 12 employees. Now known as Standard Aero, the company now has 440 employees working at Slemon Park.
“That is one example of the success of our industry on PEI,” says Allan
Shawn McCarvill, who was the CFO of Slemon Park Corporation from 1991 to 1995 and returned as President in 2008, says the plan from the beginning was to find a way to keep using the base’s resources.
“We planned to maintain control of our assets,” he says. “Rather than selling buildings and engaging third-party operators, we decided to only lease out our buildings and to operate the airport, the accommodations, and the food services on our own. We kept the development focus on aerospace and training, and that is the focus even today.
“Today, Standard Aero and Honeywell, whose operations began in 1991, employ half the people working in Slemon Park. There was a lot of great support from the federal and provincial governments for the first five years of Slemon Park Corporation as it grew its revenue base.
“In the days after the base closure was announced, someone told me it was the best thing that ever happened to Summerside.”
Slemon Park continues to expand its training activities as well. “Public safety training has grown significantly in recent years, with the presence of the Atlantic Police Academy, Correctional Services Canada, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. We are also home of the Academy of Learning and its affiliate, Marguerite Connoly Training, which trains resident care workers.”
For more about Slemon Park, visit www.slemonpark.com
The pivot from soldiers to students
Don McDougall, former President of Labatt’s and present owner of Mill River Golf Course, played a pivotal role at the beginning of the aerospace industry on PEI.
“The story of those beginnings is relevant to where the industry is today. There was no aerospace industry on PEI in the 1990s. When the base closed, it was a dramatic event for Summerside. The community was devastated, and people were afraid they were losing their future.”
Don wrote a strategic economic plan for the future of Slemon Park and was in charge of implementing it.
“Our focus was to offset the adverse effects of the base closing and of losing that many people in the local economy. We commissioned a study that found that students create a high economic impact.
“That is why we put so much emphasis on attracting training centres to Slemon Park. The Holland College Police Academy, aerospace training, and even the Culinary Institute were located in Slemon Park for a few years. We also were able to bring in CHC Service to do repair and overhaul of all the Pratt & Whitney engines in Eastern Canada.
“CHC became Atlantic Turbines, which brought in engines from the US to repair and overhaul at Slemon park, and that was a major turning point in opening up a huge market. We also had excellent support from both levels of government through many leadership changes, and we were in a rapidly growing industry.
“It turned out that in the end, as businesses and training centres moved into Slemon Park, that the closure of the CFB Summerside base was not all bad.”
A career based on customer service
Jeff Poirier is the VP and General Manager of Standard Aero in Summerside. He has been with the company for 30 years, through the time when it was owned by Atlantic Turbines and then by Vector Aerospace and now Standard Aero.
“Even to this day, US customers send their engines to Slemon Park to be repaired and overhauled,” says Jeff.
Jeff started his career in a finance role. “After two years of working in cost control, I realized I didn’t like numbers, so I decided to move to inventory stores and logistics. In 2000 when we added smaller turboprop engines to the business, I took on a customer service role.
“Standard Aero took us over in 2017, which brought its own challenges. We showed the owners that Summerside was the best place to do business, and that the Summerside team was productive, efficient, and more profitable than the location in Winnipeg. A Centre of Excellence was located here on the backs of the entire leadership team in Summerside, which led to a significant growth from 350 employees to 520. Due to COVID, we downsized quickly, but now we are growing again.
“Standard Aero does a great job of understanding and supporting what we do, investing in us, and giving us the ability to grow.
“What makes the operation successful is the efficiency and commitment of the team, including mechanics and technicians. In Paris, South Africa, and Australia they work on the same engines that we do in Summerside. We can’t get the same levels of efficiency in those other locations that we can in Summerside. We invest in and appreciate and promote our people, and a happy employee will lead to a happy customer experience.
“It is important to listen to your employees and let them help solve problems and make decisions because they deal with the problems day-to-day.
“It is all about investing in your people and the skill sets they need to succeed. Most of our services cannot be automated, so we need to develop and enhance the critical skills our employees need. There are not many 30-year veterans of the company left, and new people may not have quite the commitment to the company, so we need extra people to cover the expected attrition. Continuing to invest in your people is the biggest thing.”
PEI’s first female Red Seal Machinist recalls her employment journey
Sue Lefort’s story starts in the 1980s when she graduated from the Machinist program at Holland College. She went on to receive a Red Seal designation and began working in the aerospace industry before moving on to roles in the provincial government.
After graduating high school, she took the Holland College welding fabrication program, offered in the evenings at the Provincial Vocational Institute (PVI).
“At the time, a need was identified for more Machinists,” says Sue. “There are a lot of transferrable skills between welding and machining, such as metallurgy, blueprint reading, and math. I decided to take the machining program, and the instructors said the class at the time had the highest marks they had ever seen in trades school.
“I was the first woman on the shop floor working with the guys, and we were challenging and elevating each other. I ended up with really strong skills. I had a natural aptitude for trades and
working with my hands. I was hired right out of school, and when I walked onto the shop floor for the first time, I made sure I could stand alone on my skills. I was one of the team.”
Sue’s 25-year career in private industry went from the shop floor to senior management. “I took every opportunity for continuous learning and new roles, from Lead Hand, Night Shift Supervisor, Shop Forman, Plant Manager, all the way up to going with the Vice President of Operations on sales calls. Because I had that technical background, I was able to go on the shop floor, talk to the engineering department, the machinists, technicians, and the welders to find out what was going on and what worked and what did not work.”
When Sue transitioned to a role in the provincial government, first managing apprenticeship training and certification, and then moved on in the area of Investment Attraction and Business Development, she helped support potential businesses interested in setting up a site on PEI to available training opportunities, operations space, potential employees, and tax incentives.
Sue has some ideas for encouraging the next generation of skilled workers. “I hear of so many people who chose their careers based on a trades program at Three Oaks High School. This program struggles to attract high enough enrollment to run consistently. We need a feeder program offering hands-on tactile skills that students may not be learning right now.”
“Employers are ready, willing, and able to do their part. Government has to be ready, willing and able to listen and understand the role they can play. We need students to be influenced in their career choices by taking specialized skills courses and visiting job sites that use the skills they are interested in.
“I am now retired, but I am volunteering provincially, nationally, and internationally with Skills Canada and WorldSkills. Advocating for youth to consider the trades as their first-choice career option is near and dear to me, so that they can be as fortunate as I have been to have a fantastic career.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
about the precision machinist program at Holland College, visit www.hollandcollege.com/programs/precision-machinist.php
For more about the Atlantic Canada Aerospace and Defence Association, visit https://ac-ada.ca