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Wanted: the next wave of hands-on industry techs

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As the economy and the recovery eventually strengthen, the industry will need a broader pool of skilled workers to build and service the next generation of boats, which will only increase in sophistication. It’s also fair to say that like the aging demographic of the boat owner, the labor force in our industry is also graying.

This column and an earlier blog are the first in an occasional series of stories that Soundings Trade Only will publish in print and online during the next year on marine manufacturing and skills-based training schools and programs. This story is based on interviews with both the president and the director of education at The Landing School in Arundel, Maine, a full-time, accredited post-secondary school that offers the option of a one-year diploma program or a two-year associate’s degree in wooden-boat building, yacht design, marine systems and composite boatbuilding. (www.landingschool.edu)

Bob DeColfmacker, The Landing School’s president, believes we are experiencing a fundamental shift in the value of a formal education and that hands-on learning and apprentice programs are making a comeback. DeColfmacker makes a compelling case that not only is a trades-based education significantly less expensive than a traditional college education, but also the job prospects are good, the positions are not easily outsourced, and there is a unique satisfaction that comes from working with your hands that one can’t find in an office or cubicle environment.

“There is an unbelievable amount of student debt [today],” DeColfmacker says, adding that the kind of trades-based training that The Landing School and other programs offer is a “real great return on their educational investment.”

Not everyone fits the traditional mold, the lifelong educator points out. The Landing School attracts a diverse student body that includes young people right out of high school, those with some college or college degrees, and professionals looking for a rewarding second career that involves getting a little dirt under their fingernails.

DeColfmacker says there is a shortage of qualified workers in the marine field and notes that the shortfall will only increase across industries as time goes on. Some estimates suggest that the United States will face somewhere in the neighborhood of a 14 million-person skills gap during the next decade and, as DeColfmacker notes, “Many of those will be in the trades.” And those who graduate from hands-on programs will not only find opportunity in the marine field but — with some “slight modification” of those skills — in other industries as well, he says.

The expertise gleaned in a systems or composites program, for example, is transferable across geography and industries — a plus, given the likelihood that a young person might change careers as many as a half-dozen times, the educator says.

And DeColfmacker raises a good point when he touches on outsourcing. Trades-based jobs are not as easily transferred overseas as either low-skilled manual labor or certain highly skilled intellectual work that is susceptible to being executed elsewhere via technology — reading X-rays of U.S. patients from India, for example. “When you’re working with that combination of your head and your hands, that job is not easily outsourced,” DeColfmacker says.

It goes without saying that technology today is moving at a rapid pace across all industries and sectors and that the systems going into boats today also continue to grow in sophistication and complexity. I asked DeColfmacker and Ken Rusinek, the school’s director of education, how they deal with the rapid pace of change. “You need to stay very close to the industry,” says DeColfmacker, pointing to the advisory panels that help the school keep its curriculum on target and up to date.

“We try to teach them to be problem solvers,” Rusinek says. He wants students to be broadly conversant in technology and change “to get them to think about the different uses of technology” rather than focus too closely or narrowly on any one area. A good science-fiction background, Rusinek jokes, probably would be helpful in understanding how certain technologies will be used.

DeColfmacker says a trade education doesn’t mean workers are channeled or pigeonholed. If the desire is there, a smart, motivated worker who has come up through the hawsepipe easily can go on to become an effective manager or supervisor. There’s nothing like practical experience — having actually done the work — to be able to manage it. “Trades education and higher education are not mutually exclusive,” DeColfmacker says. “You can do both.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue.

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