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Tech shortage spans  digital and analog worlds

William Sisson

William Sisson

The marine industry continues to struggle with finding qualified technicians. Older techs are retiring, and it’s been an ongoing challenge to find and train younger workers.

This is an interesting time for our industry. There are tons of older boats on the water, which seasoned mechanics with old-school skills are very adept at keeping running. At the same time, there has been a plethora of new, increasingly sophisticated products introduced postrecession. The engines and systems on those boats lend themselves to troubleshooting by computer-savvy techs, who tend to be younger and are as comfortable with electronic diagnostic tools as the veterans are with a wrench.

Smart yards are pairing young tech-oriented workers with veteran mechanics who grew up in an analog world, squeezing into engine compartments and learning to diagnose engines by ear.

The cross-generational mentoring benefits the yard, the techs and, most important, the customers, whose boats and engines span 30 or more years.

“The young techs coming in today are more suited to the technical challenges of new products,” says Scott Bowden, 59, vice president and general manager of Port Niantic Inc., a full service marina and yard in Niantic, Conn., which has about 200 boats in slips and rack storage. “They’re easier to train on electronic diagnostic tools and computer-controlled systems on engines. They grasp the new technology quickly and wrap their heads around integration. They pick it up easy.”

You won’t become a top tech today without knowing how to apply computer troubleshooting tools to a technology challenge, says Bowden, an ABYC-certified Master Technician who also holds a number of OEM certifications. And not working hard to keep up with technology, he notes, is a “fast track out of the industry.”

Bowden employs six full-time technicians and several part-timers. His soup-to-nuts yard does it all, including work on gas and diesel engines, inboards, outboards, sterndrives and pods. He also operates a mobile service for diesels, pods and generators.

Bowden has a quartet of young workers between 19 and 28 whom he considers models of the present and the future. “I have four young guys who are cracker jacks … whiz kids,” says Bowden, who is working with the Connecticut Marine Trades Association on a pilot program focused on developing technical marine training. “They’re excellent mechanics with their hands, but they can [also] plug a laptop in and diagnose a bad sensor on an engine or a harness issue.”

For all their ease with new products and technology, younger workers haven’t mastered to the degree the veterans have what Bowden calls the “old-school, trade-school techniques” — the ability to drill out a broken bolt, pack a stuffing box, loosen a seized fastener, and so on.

When it makes sense, Bowden pairs his 19-year-old digital native with the yard’s 60-year-old MacGyver, who shows him the “old ways.”

That relationships benefits both men.

“Putting experience and technology together is the best combination,” says Erik Klockars, 61, who has worked for 41 years as a mobile mechanic and serves as a technical adviser to Trade Only. “I’ve walked down the docks and heard a skip in a motor from the exhaust, and the younger tech who was with me wasn’t able to hear it. That’s a teachable moment.”

Bowden invests in his business and his technicians by sending them to school to keep current with certifications and developments. Along with training, it takes time on the job working on a variety of boats and with a variety of problems to gain experience and technical savvy.

“Training someone to work on a boat is not a quick and easy process,” says Klockars, who also manages a marina in New London, Conn. “It takes time because you work on electrical, mechanical, plumbing. Everything you’d have a specialist work on in your house is lumped under ‘mechanic.’ ”

But, he notes, that is changing as technology becomes increasingly complex. “Techs are becoming more like doctors,” Klockars says. “They’re becoming specialists on certain brands.”

To their credit, the younger workers are also turning to new sources of information to solve old-school problems. “The new guys are jumping onto YouTube or Googling up solutions and not even asking me,” Bowden says.

Older techs play a valuable role in an industry where owners are loath to put boats and engines out to pasture. “I know a guy in his 70s who does nothing but Detroits,” Klockars says. “He’s working almost seven days a week trying to keep up. He said if he was this busy 30 years ago, he’d be retired by now. All he does is old Detroit Diesels.”

Bowden agrees there are roles to be played by veteran techs, workers who “can pull a trick out of their hat.”

“They’re valuable,” says Bowden. “They provide traditional hands-on skills that every shop needs.”

Bowden’s senior mechanic is one of those guys. “He can go through a computerized engine with a paper clip and fix it,” Bowden says. “He doesn’t need a computer. One of those guys.”

They’re a dying breed. We need to appreciate them while they’re still on the job, and also welcome in the next generation of tech-smart troubleshooters.

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue.


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