The issues were many when recreational boating and fishing stakeholders gathered in Washington, D.C., for the American Boating Congress May 15-17, but the one that stole the spotlight was the acute shortage of technicians in all industry segments.
Overall, the tone, at least on the part of elected officials, was uptight at best, as lawmakers emphasized that they are still hard at work despite the political turmoil in the nation’s capital. And though the industry talked up a number of issues — from ethanol and public water access to invasive species and saltwater fishing laws — it was most vocal on the workforce shortage.
The Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, one of many ABC co-hosts, was happy with the focus on the jobs crisis, says MRAA president Matt Gruhn. “It continues to be a pain point,” he says. “We’re really pleased with the amount of conversation related to workforce issues.”
“It was a very productive conversation,” says Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which organizes the ABC. “We had 185 meetings with congressional offices. I think we accomplished our goal of increasing the visibility of recreational boating … and the economic and social importance of recreational boating. In spite of what’s swirling around in the news, members of Congress are very busy at work every day.”
Calls for bipartisanship
U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J., was one of many calling for a less partisan climate in the nation’s capital.
“I’ve been very involved in health care,” said MacArthur, addressing the ABC audience. “I read an article this morning that called me a murderer. It’s not the first. It called me a murderer because I introduced the MacArthur Amendment that moved our health care bill across the House floor.
“As a nation we’ve got to get back to a place where we can disagree passionately, where we respect each other, and the other person doesn’t become a ‘murderer,’ ” MacArthur said. “Maybe this is where boating can help. Make like we’re floating on a boat … and realize life isn’t over because we disagree.”
The great political divide was a common theme among speakers. “Welcome to Washington, where the temperature is getting hot in more than one way,” said U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla. But he told the gathering it is “always worth coming to Washington and getting up in the faces of elected officials. It really does move the needle. It really does make a difference.”
U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., echoed that sentiment, albeit from a different perspective. “I guess there are days I wish I was sitting in back of my home on the Sacramento River fishing for salmon,” Garamendi said. “Those days seem to be long gone. Welcome to chaos. There’s no other way to describe what’s going on.”
Sen. Joe Donnelly told conferees that some of his favorite memories are tied to being on the water. The Indiana Democrat thanked the industry not only for providing the products that give him those memories, but even more for the jobs it provides.
“When we go home to Indiana we see all the people who work and have good lives … because of what you make,” says Donnelly, co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Boating Caucus. “You put it all on the line. I used to run a small business. If no one showed up, you still have bills to pay. You do it every day, every week, every year, and that makes America stronger. So on my end I want to make sure you don’t have pointless regulations. We want to have our waters clean, but it doesn’t make sense for you to do things three and four times.”
Donnelly says there is bipartisan support in the House and Senate for clean waterways. “There was an effort to reduce funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Fund. Every single senator from every single state that touches the Great Lakes said we are not in a position to go backward,” Donnelly said.
He also touched on the difficult political climate in Washington. “Your folks from home are working hard to make sure the normal stuff is getting done,” he said. “The stuff you read in the papers every day doesn’t affect what we do to create jobs, keep rivers and oceans clean and reduce regulations.”
One big effort is to try to increase the skills and talents of young people to help address the boating industry’s workforce shortage. Donnelly says he believes an infrastructure bill will get passed despite the contentious climate on Capitol Hill.
“On tax reform I just want to make sure it’s revenue-neutral,” Donnelly says. “We’re running deficits.”
A shaky backdrop
It was the first time at ABC for Eric Kretsch, who started working as the legislative and outreach coordinator for the Association of Marina Industries in September.
“There was definitely a backdrop of controversies — every member of Congress spoke about it,” Kretsch says. “Overall I felt was it was a fantastic learning experience for me. It put some pieces of the puzzle together. It also enlightened me to the opportunity that the industry has to be something that’s bipartisan, something that can cut through the chaos and advance itself. All the things we fight for — clean water, access, tax reform, job creation, workforce development — these things are benign in some ways.”
It was also the first time attending for Kevin Osborn, division vice president of the West Marine Pro division.
“Everybody’s aware of the chaos in D.C. right now,” Osborn said. However, he found it encouraging that lawmakers made a point to say they are still hard at work on the issues and trying to focus on bipartisan results.
“That felt good because we heard from both Democrats and Republicans,” Osborn said. “As we met with individual offices, members were certainly a little distracted, but they were inviting and interested in the issues, and some have reached out since via email.”
Correct Craft CEO Bill Yeargin, an ABC veteran, agrees. “Just everything in Washington, D.C., is a little weird right now. It’s strange times in the capital, but I enjoyed it,” Yeargin said. “I think the NMMA certainly feels like the current administration has an opportunity, if it doesn’t get too distracted, to be favorable, so I sensed some encouragement and excitement.”
A chance for boating issues
Despite its focus on repealing the Affordable Care Act and overhauling tax laws, the Trump administration could afford the perfect opportunity to get issues important to boating in front of lawmakers, some say.
“As we have moved through the first four months we’ve had flurries of actions here and there, but I would say a lot of things a lot of us assumed would be true haven’t been true,” said George Cooper, partner with Forest Tate Partners, durng an “Inside the Beltway” panel discussion. “There are no nevers. You can’t assume anything. Things are going to move. It just might not be the things we think are going to move. So we have to be aggressive and find opportunities to move things.”
One of the most significant things ABC attendees can do is let lawmakers know they’re out there, said Rick Murphy, who is part of Forest Tate Partners’ Republican practice. “As you’re going around today, let Congress know what’s really important to you,” Murphy said.
“There’s been all this talk about change,” said Frank Steinberg, senior director of government relations for Forest Tate Partners. “What didn’t change is the dynamic on Capitol Hill.”
“The Coast Guard reauthorization [bill] is going to get passed with some legislation in it that we supported,” Dammrich says. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see legislation passed for saltwater fisheries. As some of the bigger issues get delayed, it frees up floor time for other less major issues to get some attention.”
“We are at a high point with exuberance and energy on the NMMA side, as well as with consumer confidence and the stock market,” said Peter Schrappen, vice president and director of government affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association. “I noticed how mismatched that was with the body language of congressional members we met with. They seemed more deflated. Just like we’ve got newsletters to fill at NMTA, all those congressional offices have to write newsletters and want to bring back wins. Boating issues are bipartisan, mom and pop and apple pie, and these fit nicely with that.”
The keynote address
CNN anchor Jake Tapper, keynote speaker, asked attendees to think critically about their sources of information and look to sources beyond those that align with their thinking, regardless of which way they lean.
“We in the media are not trying to win friends, we are just trying to call balls and strikes” and hold government officials accountable on the left and the right, Tapper said. “Every politician lies. Lies need to be called out, whoever says them.
“America is about hearing ideas — even ones you find repellent,” Tapper said, adding that there is a reluctance from media outlets on the left and the right to believe anything that does not align with their ideology. “It’s offensive, and it’s wrong, and it’s un-American. It’s about hearing ideas.
“By the same token, falsehoods are not ideas, and I am concerned by the way falsehoods are being spread in our society,” Tapper said. “The way that some on the left and the right and abroad are weaponizing social media, it’s very disturbing. I’ve seen senators and members of the House referring to websites or tweeters that I am familiar with and that I know to be bad, immoral people. All of us need to become more sophisticated news consumers.”
Tapper said he rarely makes speeches because he doesn’t want to be seen as partisan and said he donates the entire amount from such appearances to two charities. One is Home For Our Troops, a Massachusetts-based organization that builds adapted homes for veterans with disabilities. The other is Horton’s Kids, a tutoring and mentoring organization that provides services to kids in Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood.
Attendees seemed to respond well to the keynoter. “Jake Tapper was a thrill, he’s an all-star and he’s at the top of his game,” Schrappen said. “It was helpful to get his perspective.”
Boots on the ground
It’s important to meet with elected officials to demonstrate that they do represent boating interests, Schrappen said.
John Livingston of Fluid Motion accompanied Schrappen to the office of Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., and saw photos of airplanes on the wall. (DelBene represents the district where Boeing is based.)
“John asked where the pictures of boats were, and she said, ‘Oh, we don’t have boatbuilders in this district,’
” Schrappen said. “John said, ‘Well, yes you do,’ and sent her up some pictures for her wall. That’s the kind of exchange you can’t have over email. It moves the conversation from a two-dimensional conversation to a three-dimensional conversation.”
Osborn said West Marine had not realized the overall impact of ABC before the company sent a few representatives this year. “We [at West Marine] didn’t realize that until we went there; I’d never actually lobbied before. But we also recognized the importance of that once we did it. I thought that was pretty powerful. It felt like our voice was heard, and now we’ll see what actions transpire.”
It was also an opportunity to learn about other aspects of the industry, Osborn said. Stephanie Vatalaros of the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation made a presentation about a campaign to get children fishing.
“I don’t want to say we strategize in a silo, but we were thinking of how we connect with customers and where there’s some synergy that could help each other,” Vatalaros says. “We had a conversation to discuss where we might be able to support each other.”
The workforce shortage was the main focus during at least three events that took place around ABC, with the Recreational Boating Leadership Council spending close to an hour and a half on the discussion, Gruhn said.
“The huge overriding issue was workforce,” Yeargin said. “I was in the Recreational Boating Leadership Council meeting, the NMMA board meeting and the historic meeting between the NMMA and the MRAA.” (It was the first time the two boards had met together, Gruhn said, underscoring the severity of the problem).
“The desire coming out of that joint board meeting was that there’s a need for the industry to centralize and put greater focus on workforce issues in a centralized manner,” eliminating duplicating efforts, Gruhn said.
“There’s a need to pull this all together and work on it as a united front, as opposed to doing things in somewhat of a disjointed fashion,” Gruhn said. “Everyone is doing a great job making progress, but there’s a disconnect of what’s happening in one state versus another. I think that’s the real message that came out of that: We need to unite behind this and focus on rolling out industrywide initiatives.”
That presents a challenge because the problems exist at a local level, Gruhn said. “So we have to approach this with the mindset that we can build things out and provide tools and resources, but they have to be applicable at a local level in order for them to get implemented successfully,” he said. “Looking back on what was accomplished, the dialogue has been escalated.”
“We’re doing the right things — the MRAA and the NMMA are working together,” Yeargin said. “They want to make the industry attractive; the problem is, every industry’s doing that. It’s not a matter of people don’t know about it. The problem is there’s too few workers, and it’s just getting worse.”
Some ideas to fill jobs
The NMTA has made great strides around current technical education, Schrappen said. In his area a program that had been rolled out for the aerospace side will be tailored to the marine industry, offering 1,080 hours of credits for high school juniors and seniors, resulting in a certificate. “In September we’ll be able to have it on the maritime side,” he said. “It’s borderline almost too good to be true.”
Boeing has already spent $750,000 developing the aerospace curriculum, and “what we’ve found is that it’s the same skill set,” Schrappen said. “The first year is focused on learning general skills working with your hands, and the second is more specific to the industry.”
Also resulting from the conversations is more industry backing of “common-sense immigration reform,” Yeargin said. “The boomers are retiring, the economy’s growing and it’s a problem for the workforce. The answer to the problem is effective immigration policy. Our economy has been fueled for over 200 years like that. We can all agree we don’t want terrorists or rapists. But we have to address this. Otherwise we’re just going to be trading people back and forth.”
“Workforce is a huge issue,” Dammrich agreed. “I think Bill Yeargin has it right. The issue has got to be directly tied to immigration. Without immigration we’ll never solve the workforce problem — of course, I’m talking about legal immigration — but we need a common-sense legal immigration system that assures we have the workers we need.”
The Center for Sportfishing Policy hosted its annual fly-in “Center Focus on Washington,” where recreational anglers and boaters participated in discussions with policy-makers. As in years past, the center co-located its fly-in with the ABC.
Key issues for the group include passing the Modern Fish Act to fix the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the law that governs recreational saltwater fishing, but that has evolved to be more focused on commercial fishing, says CSP president Jeff Angers.
Fishing advocacy groups say that the Modern Fish Act, or H.B. 2023, if passed will reform key aspects of federal fisheries management policy, allowing for greater public access to America’s waters, enhanced science and a boost for thousands of businesses.
“From our own internal statistics, we have 1.4 million customers, and 80 percent of them do some sort of fishing,” Osborn said. “We were not fully versed in what the industry was trying to rally around [prior to ABC]. We learned about H.R. 2023, the Modern Fishing Act, at the workshop and heard the discussion around separating recreational fishing from commercial.”
Recreational fishing is a hot topic for the NMTA, as well, Schrappen said.
“It really drives the boat sales in the Northwest,” he said. “When the fishing is good, sales are up, When it’s not, they fall flat, so we we’re making sure lawmakers know how tied those numbers are.”
The law that requires a rising level of ethanol to be blended into the fuel supply won’t get repealed, but the timing could be right for it to be amended, says Will Hupman, federal regulations director at the American Petroleum Institute, who helped lead a workshop on the topic.
“There are too many corn state senators to have a vote to eliminate the [Renewable Fuel Standard],” Hupman says. “We’d love to wave our magic wand. But there is a lot of consternation around the RFS from a lot of coalitions — like the restaurant folks, the motorcycle folks, the boating folks — who all care about this program.”
For the first time in its history, corn and ethanol supporters are sitting down with groups that oppose the law the way it’s written in an effort to reach an agreement. “This is the first time this effort has been undertaken” by all of the stakeholders on both sides, Hupman said.
Trade issues seemed to be less controversial from the NMMA’s point of view — the group has long supported free trade agreements — as the Trump administration has taken a more measured approach than it had on the campaign trail.
U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., co-chairwoman of the Congressional Boating Caucus, spoke about a bipartisan bill she recently co-sponsored with U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., that would change the Tariff Act of 1930.
Introduced as H.R. 2369, the bill seeks to revise the law, which requires owners of foreign-flagged boats to pay an import fee before the boats are offered for sale to U.S. residents while in U.S. waters. The bill would not remove the tax on the sale of the boat, but would defer payment of it until after the boat is sold.
“Right now there’s a 100-year-old law to pay an estimated duty before the yacht’s sold, and if doesn’t get sold they only get 75 percent back,” Frankel said. “So we have a bill that we proposed — we don’t agree on anything except for this, plus we love Florida — but this is a bipartisan effort to have a fairer law.”
Bob Denison, of Florida-based Denison Yacht Sales, was one of a team of people eager to talk with elected officials about that issue.
“All staffers and members of Congress we met with responded very positively to supporting the bill,” Denison said. “We were able to gain additional co-sponsors and expect some real progress in the coming weeks and months.”
Denison said there is no doubt that ABC helps Congress to continue to understand the importance of boating to the broader economy. “It was eye-opening to see our industry‘s associations come together for ABC,” Denison says. “I left feeling more optimistic than ever that our industry is moving in the right direction. Massive props to Thom Dammrich and the NMMA for taking the lead on a lot of the initiatives.”
With more than 250 attendees, it was one of the largest ABCs ever, Dammrich said. “I think people came away from it pretty well informed about issues that affect our industry and felt good about meetings they had with members of Congress. We had great turnout from members of Congress at our PAC reception, so all in all it was another great event. Now we just need more people to come out so we can have 285, or even 535 meetings with Congress instead of 185.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue.