The Good, the Bad and the Missing Data

Michael Verdon thinks the apprenticeship model could find a home in the U.S.
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Joshua McCabe, apprentice welder at Princess Yachts.

Joshua McCabe, apprentice welder at Princess Yachts.

Workforce is one of the most talked-about topics in the industry these days. The shortage of skilled labor is impacting every sector — from boatbuilders to accessories manufacturers, from dealers to marinas. The shortage has also extended into the semiskilled and unskilled labor pools, with production and distribution facilities competing for workers with revolving-door strategies of moving to whatever company is paying the highest hourly wages.

The attrition rate of those companies, small and large, is damaging profitability through decreased efficiency, the cost of training and more accidents. This probably isn’t news to you.

Due to the scope and seriousness of this matter, we decided to devote an entire issue to workforce. Instead of focusing on the problem, we wanted to see how it’s being addressed.

We did an industry sweep, looking at solutions from trade associations, dealers, engine manufacturers, schools and boatbuilders.

The solutions are thoughtful, often creative: Seattle Boat Works has a bonus-based plan that pays some “super techs” $100,000 per year, depending on the speed and quality of their work. Yamaha’s new apprenticeship program works through its dealer base, with an advanced online component (Page 32). Schools such as IYRS School of Technology and Trades have added advanced composites to the wooden boatbuilding curriculum so students can find industry jobs. Human resources executives now use social media to lure workers from other industries.

The most proven model, just taking hold in the United States, is the apprenticeship. Two U.K. builders, Princess and Sunseeker, have four-year programs that deliver trained welders, carpenters and composites experts. Because the apprentices often start at age 16, the yards have an enviable average workforce age in the mid-30s. The masked man welding the stainless pipe on this month’s cover (and above) is Joshua McCabe, a Princess apprentice who learned his trade from master welders in the Plymouth yard. Princess is also starting apprenticeships in human relations, finance and other white-collar jobs to retain its office workers.

While the U.K. programs aren’t transferrable to most U.S. marine businesses, New Zealand has a one-size-fits-all program. Developed 20 years ago to address that country’s skills shortage, the New Zealand Marine and Composites Industry Training Organization has seen its four-year apprenticeship program grow from eight disciplines to 16 to cover just about every sector in the industry. The program has graduated 2,200 apprentices, and 100 more have been added in recent years.

Instead of a government mandate, the program is controlled by individual marine businesses. A boatbuilder, for instance, hires the apprentices, trains them (at slightly less than minimum wage) for four years and, in the end, has a skilled worker it can rely on. The New Zealand marine trades association provides off-site courses and develops industrywide standards, so apprentices receive a national certificate. The New Zealand folks say their apprentices develop skills in half the time of technical college students because the apprentices are trained in-house by the actual marine businesses.

The Marine Industry Training and Education Council plans to apply for an $8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to establish a similar program for our industry. MITEC already has registered a national apprenticeship scheme, modeled on the New Zealand program, with our  federal government.

If MITEC receives the grant, it would set up an infrastructure that includes field officers to work with businesses and “train the trainer” programs to provide teachers for the apprentices, while also developing curricula and standards. Depending on the skill, the apprenticeships would run from six months to four years, with a nationally recognized certificate at the end.It’s an ambitious undertaking that would take years to develop — New Zealand’s program took 20 years to mature — but the skills shortage is not going away. The apprenticeship model may not be the right solution for every business, but if you want skills, worker continuity and maybe even loyalty, it is worth considering.

According to MITEC, the main thing holding it back from receiving the federal grant is lack of industry data on how bad the situation is. For all the hand-wringing about workforce shortages, that seems unacceptable. As an industry, I propose we come together and take concrete steps to address the workforce issue in a meaningful way, rather than just talking about how bad it is. That includes data. After all, there are 8 million good reasons to find a long-term solution.

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.

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