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Attracting young people who ‘think with their hands’

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You lift your head after spending a good bit of time in the traces and suddenly realize the industry has gone gray while you were busy plowing your fields. Where did all the kids go?

We could use a good infusion of young workers in our ranks.

Helping to encourage the passage of young people into the world of marine trades is one of the missions of Phin Sprague, founder of the Maine Boatbuilders Show and the owner of Portland Yacht Services, a full-service yard in Portland, Maine.

To that end, Sprague held what he labeled an “experiment” at the show last Saturday — a marine troubleshooting competition in which six two-person teams of students from three area high school vocational programs diagnosed and repaired three simple systems: bilge pumps, nav lights and horns.

The kids got a real boost out of the contest, says Sprague, who hopes it will eventually grow to include troubleshooting actual boats.

“We think these young people can become the backbone of our industry,” Sprague wrote in one of his newsletters distributed at the show. “They will be our stars.”

Sprague is a champion of young kids who don’t easily fit into mainstream high school and college programs. These young people are intelligent, typically mechanically or technically inclined and, as Sprague says, “They think with their hands.”

“The regular schools are passing on these kids because they think differently,” he told me. “They’re very smart. People learn differently. People are not all wired the same. Sometimes very smart people don’t get along in regular classes.”

The marine industry (among a host of others) needs intelligent, young, motivated workers, and Sprague says school districts need to do a better job of supporting vocational programs that better match students to their abilities, much like apprentice programs once did.

“Where are we going to get the next generation?” Sprague asks. “We know the answer. It’s just that they’re cutting these programs. Everyone wants sexy programs. We want solid programs.” By that, he means those that emphasize hands-on training.

“A young kid who feels good about himself has something to lose,” says Sprague, who is 63. “A kid who doesn’t feel good about himself has nothing to lose. If you can get them fired up about something when they’re young, it can carry them their whole lives.”

“We’re all getting old,” adds Jason Curtis, 42, the operations manager at the Portland boatyard. “There’s a huge gap. We’re all 40-plus, with no young ones coming in.”

At Sprague’s boatyard, both of his 20-something-year-old workers came out of the recreational/marine repair program at the Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATH), which Sprague says needs to be supported and continued. He also praised the Marine Mechanics Institute program in Orlando, Fla., where they got additional training after high school.

Another PATH graduate in his 20s who worked at the yard and also went through The Landing School (an accredited post-secondary marine school) is now an engineer on a 115-foot schooner. “After that, hopefully he’ll be a star here,” Sprague says. “We have to get these kids out to sea for a while, too. It’s only half the job if they have the knowledge and not the experience.”

While the majority of us were turning gray, boats and their systems have been growing in sophistication and complexity, requiring a work force with ever more training and specialization. “Things are getting more and more technical,” Sprague says. “Anybody who is working on a boat needs to know the approved way of doing things. The whole world of boats is changing. There’s more computing power in a boat now than they used to get to the moon.”

As Curtis notes, “You can’t go near the new outboards without a laptop.”

“Things are happening fast,” Sprague adds. “These kids are smart. They don’t think the way other kids do, but that’s a good thing. Otherwise they’d all be writing history papers. Instead they’re going to be making history.”



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