An affordable path to job skills

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Marine industry companies commonly complain that there aren’t enough qualified candidates for the jobs they are trying to fill. Technology’s rapid and constant evolution is exacerbating the problem, and the dark days of what we now call the Great Recession have done more to drain the talent pool than fill it.

The nonprofit American Boat & Yacht Council was created in 1954 to develop safety standards for the design, construction, equipage, repair and maintenance of boats. The ABYC continually reviews and adjusts its standards, as needed.

ABYC standards in 64 areas, including product safety, credentialing, education and training, are considered the industry’s gold standard globally.

But training does not come cheap, says Michael Keyworth, who manages the Brewer Cove Haven Marina in Barrington, R.I., and leads the training component for the 24-facility Brewer Yacht Yard Group.

“We were paying about $800 for each certification for a five-day course, plus $1,000 in lost wages and $3,800 in lost billing for that week, and we figured on about $100 for travel, $600 for lodging and about $200 for food,” he says. “That’s about $6,500 for each certification for one employee.”

A few years ago, ABYC members such as Keyworth and Ed Sherman, the council’s vice president and educational director, were thinking of ways to make the pathway to certification more efficient and affordable.

“Our certifications have been around for years, but they were underutilized,” says Sherman. “The recreational boating industry is back, so we came up with this idea for hybrid training.”

Fast Trac was launched in January 2013 and the ABYC has since issued several hundred certifications through the program.

Under Fast Trac, students do most of the work independently on their own time and come together for one day of review with a certified instructor, followed by testing.

Although their classroom time is limited, students have access to the instructor (via email and cellphone) during the four- to six-week study period that precedes the review/test day.

The estimated net cost of a certification is about $500 a person under Fast Trac — an enormous savings for the employer.

Keyworth says he has no trouble persuading his staff to improve their professional development.

“ABYC sees the certification as the property of the employee, so even though I as the employer will probably pay for it, the employee takes that certification with him,” he says.

“I recently proctored a test on refrigeration systems and was impressed with the attitude of the guys, who were taking it very seriously and focused on doing the best they can,” he says.

Through last year, Brewer counted a pass rate of 88 percent for its largely veteran crew, who have an average tenure of 16 years. That’s about 10 to 15 percent higher than the ABYC’s average pass rate.

As of January, Brewer Group employees had earned 196 certifications.

After a Fast Trac session held during the winter, the Brewer Group achieved its goal of having a master technician (someone who has achieved certification in three areas) at each of its yards. There are 38 master technicians at Brewer’s 24 facilities.

That makes good business sense, Keyworth says.

“As our customers travel from yard to yard, they know they are getting a consistent standard of repair rules,” Keyworth says. “It gives us a level of credibility that normally doesn’t exist.”

To bolster the Fast Trac program, Sherman says the ABYC recently added webinars in the evenings for review and Q&A sessions with an instructor leading up to a test.

“We give credit for 30 hours for using traditional certification; Fast Trac reduces that to one seven-hour day, with a lot of home study,” Sherman says. “We offer this all around the country and try to work with marine trade associations on a local level.”

The Maine Marine Trades Association and the Michigan Boating Industries Association were early advocates of Fast Trac and they participate. The Rhode Island Marine Trades Association is considering encouraging members to take advantage of it.

“To make it easier on the yards, we often will tag testing onto another event, such as we did at IBEX last fall, where students just need to arrive a day early to take the test,” Sherman says. “We found it to be a good way for people who are constrained by time.”

Beyond its Fast Trac program, ABYC certifications are back up to pre-recession levels, averaging four classes a month. Student enrollment averages 19 per class.

“We’re really working to get the word out about the Fast Trac program. There are a lot of folks out there who don’t know who we are and how we can enhance their business,” Sherman says.

“The classic argument against certifications, typically from the mom-and-pop shops with less capital, is they spend money on certification and their employee goes elsewhere.”

More and more, Sherman says, the ABYC is hearing that employers are seeking proof of ABYC certifications when they interview people for jobs.

“At the end of the day, boats are not getting simpler and the credentialing of the work force is becoming more and more important, both in hands-on and book learning,” Sherman says.

“Customer expectations are at an all-time high, so the certifications are only going to become more important.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue.

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