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Help Wanted

Michael Verdon gives his perspective on the marine industry's workforce shortage.
Michael Verdon

Michael Verdon

The takeaway from the American Boating Congress, my first official appearance as editor of Soundings Trade Only, is that we’re facing some of the most urgent challenges our industry has seen. Tariffs are already forcing some aluminum builders to raise prices from $750 to $2,000 on each new boat. The E15 ethanol-fuel quagmire seems as remote as ever from resolution for America’s boaters. And the “Help Wanted” signs for technicians at boat dealerships and manufacturing facilities won’t be coming down anytime soon.

That last one is particularly troublesome for the long-term health of the industry, given chronic nationwide labor shortages. Despite handwringing about losing American manufacturing, an estimated 391,000 jobs are waiting to be filled in U.S. factories.

Every dealer, boatbuilder and marine equipment manufacturer has been aware of this problem for five years. Mercury Marine signed a labor agreement with its unions in Fond du Lac, Wis., two years earlier than scheduled to retain its stable, skilled workforce at least until 2023. The Rhode Island Marine Trades Association has one of the best apprenticeship programs in the country, something I was well aware of during my 10 years in the Ocean State, to fill that industry’s labor needs.

Yamaha Marine plans to launch an apprenticeship program this month. The engine and boat manufacturer will be working with dealers to train technicians at its headquarters, though the emphasis on recruiting and placement will remain at the dealership level. Recognizing that its dealers have businesses to run, Yamaha will provide support to make sure they have the resources they need. Forty apprentices are expected to pass through the program this year, and if results mirror growth projections, we could see the first Yamaha Marine Technician Factory in a few years.

What about the rest of us? The Marine Retailers Association of the Americas says 31,000 jobs will be unfilled at the dealer level by next year. Matt Gruhn, MRAA president, translates that into about 25 percent open jobs at the average dealership. In most family dealerships, which employ 16 people, nearly four tech jobs will remain open.

While that level of workforce shortage has obvious short-term ramifications, it also could hurt boating in the long run. A northern Michigan dealer at ABC said he’s dealing with a four-month service backlog, about the length of his boating season. Some boaters will have to wait until next season to get their boats repaired — not a great way to retain new boaters if that’s happening across the country.

Help could be on the way, or at least a possible roadmap with ways to ease the labor shortage. At ABC, MRAA and the National Marine Manufacturers Association introduced a white paper, authored by RIMTA, called “10+1 Strategy.” As its subtitle suggests, “A Marine Industry Guide to Growing The Workforce” outlines long-term issues around workforce development and retention, while offering suggestions to find and keep workers.

I won’t go into every bullet point, but the document is a good read (mraa.com), and several points are worth highlighting. As Gruhn says, the workforce issue needs to be understood as also being a customer service problem. “If we can’t build the boats that we can sell and can’t service the boats that have been sold,” he says, “boating will suffer.”

Our reputation for uneven wages, seasonal work and “dirty” conditions also needs to be addressed. We haven’t been great at tooting our own horns about the pluses of boating careers. We may need to take a marketing lesson from the NMMA’s Discover Boating campaign for consumers. For techs, career advancement is almost a given, thanks to labor shortages. Alternative career development paths exist for workers with little or no college education. Plus, this industry’s a lot more fun than most.

Like the strategy at Yamaha, the white paper states that labor initiatives have to be driven from the dealership and factory levels. Also like Yamaha, the MRAA plans to develop a set of workable best practices, with a support network of personnel and literature, so that the wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented any time a company starts a worker-recruitment program. Marine trade associations would become the point people for the initiative, while a centralized materials database and possibly a national workforce development coordinator (the “+1” in the report’s title) would be established. The idea seemed so compelling that more than 25 boating associations signed on as sponsors.

While these ideas are nice on paper, there aren’t any silver bullets. We’re competing against industries that have been working for years to address the labor shortage and, often, offering better salaries. As with the Grow Boating initiative targeting consumers almost 20 years ago, we’re coming to the workforce-shortage party later than some industries.

But if there’s a clear path with real-world solutions, we can find our way forward. The “10+1 Strategy” seems like a smarter solution than what we have now: dealers and factories poaching from one another to find the help they need.

My question to Gruhn: What happens in the next downturn when the “Help Wanted” signs disappear? 

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue.

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