John Stier has been a marine systems instructor with Rhode Island's International Yacht Restoration School since last fall. Prior to coming to IYRS, he was chief engineer aboard the 115-foot charter sailing yacht Titan XIV.
Stier, 44, worked in Internet advertising until 2000, then worked at the Web site WeMedia. From 2002-04, he served as director of e-commerce at Reader's Digest.
Stier holds Coast Guard Master 100-ton and 200-ton licenses and Y4 Engineering and RYA Yachtmaster Offshore ratings. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees at Louisiana State University and lives in Newport, R.I.
Q: IYRS began with a single program in boatbuilding and restoration. What factors led to the marine systems program?
A: What IYRS really excelled at was a teaching methodology and, though there was great affection for the beauty and the craft of wooden boats, it was recognized that the craft of marine technology itself was the core of the IYRS teaching philosophy. It was a natural offshoot once that core competency was recognized - to start with the marine systems program and then start developing the composites program, which is the next program we'll be rolling out next fall.
Q: Did you reach out to fiberglass boatbuilders when you were putting the program together to find out what they looked for in employees?
A: Absolutely. In all of the programs that IYRS develops, they develop them very closely with an advisory group, which is made up of leaders in the field with which they're hoping to build the program. For instance, in the marine systems program, the advisory group consisted of boat manufacturers and trade organizations that both needed labor and were looking for competent people to sell and use their equipment.
Technology's changing really quickly and it's no longer the case that a single person is going to know everything about every engine. We were just at Cummins, and they have over 50 models of engines and the training level is pretty advanced, so they're looking for people who have both an appreciation for diesel technology as well as the willingness to learn and the aptitude to handle more technically advanced engines. You can't, for instance, begin working on one of these unless you're pretty well-versed with the use of a laptop and skilled in finding files. You upload new performance curves to the computer system and the work requires a completely different kind of mechanic than what was required 50 years ago.
Q: The marine systems program has been in place for about five years now. How has it grown in that time?
A: The first group was seven students and we're now up to 15 students. Our goal is to have 23 next year and, based upon the number of applications we've gotten so far, it looks like we're well on our way. In addition to that, we started off with the American Boat and Yacht Council offering certification in one area and presently we're doing it in two areas and will probably be rolling it out to three next term. We also are in negotiations with other professional organizations to offer certifications in their specialties.
Both the depth and breadth of the subject matter we teach has grown significantly, as well as the quality of the applicants we're receiving. IYRS enjoys a pretty international renown in its boatbuilding program and the marine systems program is quickly growing as well.
Q: Can you talk about some of the relevant skills taught in the program and the main areas of focus within systems training?
A: The marine systems program presently offers ABYC certification in marine diesel engines and marine electrical. We're probably going to roll out an electronics installer, as well as refrigerator technician certification next term. We can coach and guide our students in any of the other ABYC certification programs. We don't administer those tests here presently, but we can certainly provide them with all of the materials and education during the normal semester for that.
We focus mainly on marine steering systems, plumbing, hull fittings, pumps and water systems, marine diesels, marine gasoline engines, propulsion and gearboxes, LPG and propane gas systems, sewage systems and containment, a very intense course in marine electrics and wiring a boat, as well as a comprehensive electronics installation module. And finally we wrap it all up with a project management program.
It's a combination of hands-on and book training. It has been about equal theoretical and hands-on, and we're moving more to about 70-30 [hands-on]. We're very proud that we're going to be launching a boat at graduation with the rest of the IYRS students this year. We're laying a prop shaft, rebuilding a diesel, putting in new electric systems, navigation, radios - it's a pretty big project.
We've got five other fiberglass hulls here, which we use as a mock-up for the installation of diesel engines, the plumbing and all of the marine electrics. We've got several generators here that students work on. We've got probably 12 diesel engines and four gasoline engines that they work on, a whole variety of marine gearboxes, transmissions, propeller shafts - the whole nine yards.
Most of the work is done in a lab with half of a hull with the top cut off, so I can supervise and the other instructors can supervise without actually sending someone into a bilge to do work. But we've got real marine equipment here that we're doing installation on. When it's possible, we go out in the field, as some of the exercises we do you just can't do in a laboratory setting. But the majority of work that we do here is in the classroom. Our lab here is pretty extensive.
We also have a six-week internship that we offer students as part of this year-long program. During those six weeks, they are actually hands-on with a boatyard or a marine systems company working in the field.
Q: How does the training address issues such as boats where maintenance and repair items are difficult to access?
A: We try to prepare the students as well as possible. The mock-ups that we have here are real boats and as challenging as any to work on. It's a fact that on a boat, the one component you need to reach is almost always in an impossible location. We simulate that the best that we can and we focus on the relevant standards through every module we teach.
We also go over different ways that we [deal with] problems and solutions. We talk about the costs and benefits of each method of solving a problem. We teach to the American Boat and Yacht Council standards here, but we recognize that not every installation a technician would come across is going to be up to those standards and we talk about the reasons why it would be prudent for a technician to recommend to a boat owner to upgrade their system to meet those standards.
Q: Is it difficult to keep up with the latest environmental regulations, and how do you teach students about regulations that may not be in place today but likely will be in the future?
A: We have a very close relationship with our industry partners. For instance, we were at Cummins recently on a field trip and we were learning about the Tier III EPA requirements for diesel engines, which are going to be in place in 2012. While the subject matter we teach is to the current standards, we try to keep abreast of that and look at trends in the industry and understand which direction component manufacturers are moving their products.
Q: Are your students finding jobs after graduation - how is your placement rate?
A: We're very fortunate because we've got great partnerships with some industry leaders, but we've also got a great reputation and, because of that, every student who has graduated from the systems program and has wanted a job has been able to get one.
Q: How serious a problem was the shortage of skilled workers when the industry was healthier and do you foresee future shortages of the kind of workers needed to build boats?
A: There's a couple of different kinds of shortages in the industry and there definitely will be in the future as the trade and the industry at large recover. Part of the issue is the level and breadth of training the technicians have. In the past, it was possible for a technician to specialize in one area and that, of course, is the way to get really good at something. But it's also incumbent upon people who are entering the field to be adaptable to the needs of the shipyard or builder they're working with.
We try to make sure our students are as well-rounded as possible, but we coach them in the areas in which they have particular aptitude or expertise. So when they do go out into the work force, they're able to not only excel in their chosen specialty but are also able to meet the needs of their employer. When we teach marine diesel engines, we also try to take a look at some of the 2-stroke engines that, for instance, are in Travelifts, so that's just one of the skills that these students have when they graduate.
From my understanding, there's more linear feet of boats being built now than in the history of the world and those boats are going to need to be maintained and cared for by people with high skill levels. So in the future there's definitely going to be a need for highly skilled, well-trained and eager professionals.
In concert with the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association, we are planning on having an industry roundtable in early March, and we're going to be speaking with individuals who have been modifying the scope of their businesses to meet future needs. Based upon the position of the U.S. dollar in the world economy right now, as well as the kind of technology that we have here in Rhode Island in boatbuilding, there's no reason that the marine trades can't be a leader in the recovery of the whole state, if not the nation's growth.
This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue.