A Systematic Evolution

Marine schools are offering far more than instruction in wooden-boat building
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Now: Most are offering degrees in advanced composites, design and systems repair for modern boatbuilding.

Now: Most are offering degrees in advanced composites, design and systems repair for modern boatbuilding.

Whether it’s accurate or not, when most people hear about a boatbuilding school, the first image that pops into their head is a guy with a scraggly beard in a flannel shirt covered in sawdust, sanding away at a wooden dinghy.

Changing that perception is an ongoing battle for the IYRS School of Technology and Trades in Newport, R.I.; the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Port Hadlock, Wash.; and The Landing School in Arundel, Maine.

“I’m constantly looking at where we’ve been, where we might be heading and what we need to do to attract students to create a graduate that’s valued by the marine trades community,” says Jay Coogan, president of IYRS.

Betsy Davis, executive director at the Northwest School, says having the ability to work with wood and to solve problems that come up during a project is beneficial, but employer demand has resulted in all these schools, plus others undoubtedly, expanding their curricula. “Employers have told us, ‘No one’s going to come work at our shop and build a wooden boat,’ ” she says.

Sean Fawcett, dean of education at The Landing School, says he works with boatbuilders to determine the baseline skills that new workers need. “We asked them, ‘If you were hiring an entry-level yacht designer or systems mechanic, what skills do you require them to have on day one?’ Those are the things that we focus on,” he says.

All the schools work with professional advisory committees, which repeatedly say the marine industry needs entry-level help trained in composites and systems, as well as in traditional wooden-boat skills. The fact that all three schools have placement rates exceeding 90 percent illustrates the demand for these workers.

IYRS offers four programs: Wooden Boatbuilding and Restoration, a two-year course of study; Composites Technology and Marine Systems, each of which takes six months to complete; and Digital Modeling and Fabrication, a nine-month class. Students who complete Marine Systems receive three certifications; two are provided for the composites program. There are no certifications yet for digital modeling.

“We introduced the Digital Modeling and Fabrication program because we wanted to bring in design elements as well,” Coogan says. “There’s a lot of stuff that can be done crossing back and forth between the digital and analog world of putting together a boat.”

IYRS has offered the Marine Systems program for about 10 years, Composites Technology is four years old, and Digital Modeling and Fabrication is in its second year. The Northwest school is in the inaugural year of its systems class, taught by Kevin Ritz, a former American Boat and Yacht Council instructor and an expert on electric-shock drowning. Marine Systems is a six-month course at the school, and wooden-boat building takes a year. Davis says the state of Washington kicked in $100,000 in grants to help start the program, and the school raised $400,000 locally.

“Our employers said if a student gets those system skills, if they know the wood skills and the systems skills, they’re most likely to have longevity in the workplace,” Davis says.Davis says her school also recently had a graduate go on to The Landing School to study design. Launched in 1978 in a barn with a dirt floor, The Landing School started out offering instruction in wooden-boat building. A few years later, it added a course in yacht design. Marine systems and then composites followed.

Then: Most boatbuilding schools have a reputation of teaching only carpentry skills for wooden boats.

Then: Most boatbuilding schools have a reputation of teaching only carpentry skills for wooden boats.

“There was interest from the student side and demand from the industry side,” Fawcett says. “Companies were looking for skilled entry-level employees.”

Each of The Landing School’s four courses of study lasts eight months. A student who takes two programs plus eight general education credits earns an associate’s degree. “Because we offer an associate’s degree, we’re now seen as a nice alternative to college for people who aren’t academically inclined for a ‘normal’ college,” Fawcett says. “They can come here and have a really nice trade and go out and get a good job in a boatyard.

At the Northwest School, a 12-month course in wooden-boat building earns a student an associate’s degree in occupational studies, and the tuition is $21,400, plus expenses. The six-month Marine Systems program scheduled to start in April has a tuition of $9,700, plus expenses, and the session that starts in October is $10,700, plus expenses.

Tuition at The Landing School is $19,840, plus expenses, for each of the four courses. Totals average approximately $35,000, including room and board, personal expenses and local transportation.

Those numbers could explain these numbers. IYRS has graduated 600 people in 24 years, and this year, The Landing School has a total of 63 students in its four programs, with a maximum of 102. The average student age at The Landing School is 27; at IYRS, Coogan estimates the average age at 29. The average at the Northwest School is 34.

All three administrators say their schools have a mix of students, from those who are fresh out of high school looking to start a career to older folks in search of a career change. They also say the collaborative approach they’ve adopted helps teach real-world problem-solving that lets them integrate into a working boatyard environment.

“If you learn how to work with a particular program or material, you’re conditioned to keep your eye on what other people are doing, and continuing to learn to educate yourself so you’re going to maintain a positive working relationship to the industry,” Coogan says.When it comes to changing general opinions people have about boatbuilding schools, Fawcett says, “It’s amazing how many people come through this place and say, ‘I never knew you did this here.’ ”

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.

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