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Contemporary worker shortage comes with new challenges

Facing a shortage of qualified workers is not new for our industry. It’s been an on-again, off-again challenge for the last three decades. But as new-boat production continues to ramp up from recession lows, the work-force situation is tight and appears to be getting tighter.

And this time there are new wrinkles. They include a lack of “soft skills” among young workers; the reluctance of workers who lost jobs in marine during the recession and found employment elsewhere to come back; our rapidly graying work force; and the fast pace of technological change, which is making it difficult for workers to keep up without additional training.

Bill Yeargin says the work-force and skills-gap issue is one that comes up frequently during meetings of the Manufacturing Council, a group of 25 business leaders who advise the U.S. Secretary of Commerce on manufacturing issues. “We talk about this all the time,” says Yeargin, the president and CEO of Correct Craft, which owns Nautique Boats, Pleasurecraft Marine Engines and Aktion Parks.

The easy answer is to say more training is needed, but the veteran boating executive does not believe that addresses the real issue. “We don’t need more training programs,” says Yeargin. “We need to work on employability skills. We need people who will show up on time, will show up the next day, who won’t take Mondays off, who will work eight hours for eight hours’ pay. That’s the biggest issue I see.

“We’re happy to train people to do the job,” he emphasizes, but the worker has to show up with a great attitude and the desire and willingness to learn.

There clearly is a demand for workers with “soft skills,” says Neal Harrell Jr., president of the Brooks Marine Group, which specializes in finding workers for a range of marine industry jobs, from executives to technicians.

“Work ethic, dependability, willing to pay their dues, comes early and stays late,” says Harrell, who is based in Newport, R.I., and has been in the recruiting business — first for the automotive industry and then for the marine industry — for 18 years. “I think this newer generation has been inundated with this idea, this pipe dream, that they’re going to rise through the ranks very quickly.”

Harrell says he’s not as “disenchanted” as others in the industry about the new worker. “I see individuals who are hungry and ready to be mentored, who want a shot,” he says.

He’s also realistic. Harrell recently had a young man who was about to start an entry-level position at a New England boatyard. The would-be worker looked like a good candidate and seemed eager to start when the firm checked in on him the evening before his first day. When Harrell called his client the following afternoon to find out how things went, he learned that the guy had been a no-show. “He said his car wouldn’t start,” Harrell recalls.

When I talked to Harrell in late March, he was trying to fill nearly 40 positions, which on average was taking about 8 to 10 weeks apiece. “In 18 years I’ve never seen talent as hard to find as it is right now,” he says, noting that he could place two dozen certified outboard technicians today if he had them.

Harrell believes the industry can do a better job with younger workers who will be needed to replace the aging boomers. “We need to give them a career ladder,” he says. “If you work hard, this is how you can rise through an organization.”

And as employees pick up certifications and additional training, Harrell says there should be an increase in pay commensurate with their new skills.

“As an industry, we’ve done a poor job of filling the pipeline with young people,” he says.

There is always a concern that a shortage of skilled workers will eventually affect the consumer. When service suffers, Harrell cautions, boaters will start looking for other ways to spend their time and discretionary dollars.

ABYC vice president and educational director Ed Sherman agrees. “If we don’t have people to service the boats, the sport is not going to grow,” he says. On top of that, the new boater has higher expectations than previous generations about product quality and service.

“They’re different from you and me,” Sherman says. “The new boat buyer today has the Lexus, BMW or Mercedes mentality. They’re high-performance people used to getting high-performance service. If you can’t do that, they’ll get annoyed and leave. They won’t hang around.”

The work-force issue is a common challenge we’re all facing now, Harrell says. “We have to figure this out,” he says, “and it’s going to take some long-term investment.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue.


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