Industry has the work, needs more workers

Early this year, when the financial markets were plummeting and the “R” word was back in the headlines and in conversations, I spoke with a boatbuilder who referred to himself and his colleagues as “canaries in a coal mine.”

Early this year, when the financial markets were plummeting and the “R” word was back in the headlines and in conversations, I spoke with a boatbuilder who referred to himself and his colleagues as “canaries in a coal mine.”

“We see things slowing down before anyone else,” says Scott Deal, founder and president of Maverick Boat Co., who at the time was running three shifts and having trouble keeping up with demand as U.S. and global markets roiled.

Another barometer of industry health might be Neal Harrell Jr., president of the marine management recruiting firm Brooks Marine Group of Newport, R.I., who has a good handle on the recreational boating labor market.

I spoke with Harrell a year ago, and at the time he was as busy as he’d ever been in nearly 18 years trying to fill midlevel management jobs. And today?

“Just flat out right now,” says Harrell. “And the good news is we’re seeing a lot of production work coming our way. Folks are back building boats, as they have been.”

Harrell says some of the strongest demand is coming from production fiberglass builders producing boats as large as 40 feet, which is not surprising, given the strength of outboard-powered boats in that size category.

Builders are looking for plant and production mangers, lamination and assembly supervisors, system installers, commissioning personnel and more, according to Harrell, who predicts that new-boat sales could grow by 7 to 8 percent this year.

“It’s as challenging a recruiting environment as I’ve ever seen,” he says. Positions that took four to six weeks to fill prerecession are now open for eight to 10 weeks, he notes. Again, the issue isn’t jobs. “The challenge is where can we find the people?”

Harrell’s company specializes in manager-level jobs with salaries in the $70,000 to $120,000 range (the recruitment firm also does executive and trade-level searches). “I think it’s even more challenging at the hourly level,” he says. “It’s frankly a good problem to have. Boats are being built and sold. Fulfillment seems to be the challenge. Getting boats out the door to meet the dealer demand.”

The demand is also strong for skilled techs (diesel, outboard, sterndrive) to service boats at dealerships and boatyards, especially those with heavy seasonal demands, such as spring commissioning and fall layup.

“These are good problems, of course, unless we get to the point where you can’t meet demand and you’re losing customers as a result,” he says. And, Harrell adds, “Wages are finally starting to catch up with demand, which is a good thing.”

The big challenge that is not going away overnight remains finding qualified workers to fill jobs at a time when the work force is shrinking, says Harrell, echoing the concern of a number of industry pundits.

Some baby-boom-generation workers have retired or soon will. Others vanished in the Great Recession.

“We shed so many jobs during the recession, and a lot of these people left for other industries, and we can’t get them back,” he says. At the same time, he notes, “We didn’t do a very good job as an industry of filling the pipeline with new young talent.”

Harrell says many of those who lost marine jobs during the economic collapse and subsequently found work elsewhere have no desire to return, especially if they’re in an industry considered more recession-proof than recreational boating.

“The recession is still fresh in their minds,” he says. “They’re happy where they are, and they’re still risk-averse.”

It also will take time to narrow the gap created by older skilled employees leaving the ranks of the working. “How are we going to replace that skilled tech who is about to retire?” he asks.

There simply aren’t enough marine technical workers in the Gen X cohort to step in and fill those spots. “We just don’t have the numbers,” says Harrell, who at 44 is a member of Gen X. “The challenge is how fast can we train the millennials up.”

Harrell is optimistic about the young workers who are starting to enter the marine job market. “I’m seeing a lot more companies willing to invest in the millennial generation. In training and development programs. In internships and apprenticeships. It’s long overdue.”

Although attitudes are improving, Harrell says there is still work to be done.

“As an industry we need to do a better job of going out and letting this generation know that there are good jobs in marine,” he says.

And he is optimistic that a cultural shift regarding vocational training and technical education is taking hold. “I think we’re going to move a little bit away from this service economy and get back to building things,” Harrell says. “I think you’ll see more jobs coming back to the U.S. There are good-paying jobs for people who like to work with their hands.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue.


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