The word “apprentice” conjures images of reality television or Victorian blacksmiths. A number of marine companies, mostly outside the United States, have carried the apprenticeship concept into the digital age by using a combination of on-the-job training, formal education and youtube videos. These modern apprenticeships provide training inside a boat or equipment manufacturer’s facility while partnering with trade associations or local vocational colleges for the educational component.
“We’ve graduated about 2,200 people from our four-year apprenticeship program,” says Chris van der Hor, general manager of the NZ Marine and Composites Industry Training Organization. “We have 450 people in training and added another 100 apprentices in the last year. That number is a direct reflection of the boating industry’s growth over the last few years.”
The New Zealand Marine Industry Association organizes the program, which won an IBI Boat Builder Award last year. Marking its 20th year, the apprenticeship concept was developed after the New Zealand government realized vocational schools were failing to address a skills shortage.
“When I first started 14 years ago, there were four colleges that offered marine courses for students who wanted to enter the boating industry,” van der Hor says. “The biggest of those for-profit colleges recently shut down, which says something about the ineffectiveness of their business model.”
The vocational colleges did not offer enough hands-on training to suit boatbuilders and composites companies. “The marine businesses found [that] our apprentices, after just two years, far outstripped what the college students had learned in four years,” van der Hor says.
The group designed its program so the apprentices would spend four years working directly with a company, with supplemental off-site courses. “Our program does not require apprentices to take college loans, and many builders have also structured their programs to keep their costs minimal,” he says. “At the end of the process, they have skilled workers, and our apprentices have full-time jobs.”
Sixteen Specialized Fields
The program adheres to curricula that the New Zealand Qualifications Authority established, so apprentices end the four-year program with a nationally recognized certificate. “The industry takes care of the typical skills needed in the workplace, which is about 80 percent of the training, but we’re responsible for the curriculum, mentoring the apprentices and maintaining contact throughout the four years,” van der Hor says.
The program has expanded from eight to 16 specialized qualifications. The list includes powerboat rigging, advanced composites, building in alloy and marina facilities. “We’ve also seen big growth in specialized composites,” van der Hor says. “That’s helped by the America’s Cup, of course, but companies like Rocket Lab, which builds lightweight rockets, is also pushing that curriculum.”
The boating industry board that designs and administers the program includes 10 executives from different sectors. “We provide all the knowledge-based learning materials,” van der Hor says. “We have specialized areas — for instance, advanced welding and composites training — so we provide outside experts for those subjects. We’re constantly revising our teaching processes and curriculums. We’ll spend over $1 million over the next few years to stay current.”
The program has 350 industry standards across the broad-based curriculum, which is now being digitized. Van der Hor says the next step for the program is to start its own training school.
The staff, which has grown from one person in 1999 to 13 today, visits apprentices six times per year. The apprentices receive trainee wages, slightly below minimum wage, by the businesses they work for and are assessed every six months for performance gains, with raises given accordingly.
The association also has established a six-month pretraining program so marine businesses can vet potential apprentice candidates before making a four-year commitment. A “school to work” program has students as young as 15 splitting their week between high school and the workplace. “That program has been highly successful in identifying the most suitable candidates,” van der Hor says.
The program currently works with 210 companies across New Zealand’s marine industry. “Nearly a third of those employers started out as apprentices who went on to start their own companies,” van der Hor says. “We did a study that showed for every dollar invested in training, there’s a return on investment of $3.44 to $7.”
British boatbuilder Sunseeker also sees its apprenticeship program providing a high return on investment. “The program gives us a strong pool of talented workers who have graduated from our training program,” says Alex Bowman, head of human resources operations at Sunseeker International. “That means we have someone who has spent four years working on our boats to immediately start on any new builds. To try to recruit that same level of talent from the market would be very difficult.”
The Poole-based builder has had an apprenticeship program since 1969, but executives put it through an overhaul in 2011. The company moved its educational component from a for-profit technical college to a local, government-owned school that invested in state-of-the-art training facilities for Sunseeker apprentices, as well as for workers within the builder’s local supply chain.
400 Candidates, 40 Apprentice Slots
“We took on 40 apprentices from 400 candidates and expect to offer them all full-time jobs after they complete their apprenticeships,” Bowman says.
For the first three years, apprentices work at Sunseeker four days a week, attending college on Fridays. For the last, or “improver,” year, apprentices work full time at Sunseeker to hone specialty skills. Fewer than 5 percent of the apprentices fail to complete the four-year program. Many move on to senior positions.
“This program tends to offer a real longevity of service,” Bowman says. “Our workforce also has a healthy age profile. We don’t have a retiring workforce. The average age is in the mid-30s.”
When Bowman started recruiting apprentices in 2010, most were local teens keen to find jobs. Now, he says, many of the applicants come from farther afield — some from other parts of Europe — and some are looking for a second career. Seven percent of this year’s apprentices are female.
“Many of these candidates are looking for a path other than a university degree,” Bowman says. “They look at apprenticeships with a well-respected qualification as a better entry point to a career. The result for us is that we have some fabulous people coming through.”
The certificates that apprentices receive are nationally recognized. Bowman says the apprenticeship program has become a lifeline for the builder. “We have no choice but to invest in training,” he says. “Our executives say our goal is to provide a peerless experience aboard our yachts, and that only works by training apprentices who can retain that quality. It’s a necessity to survive.”
YouTube and TED Talks as Teaching Tools
Sunseeker’s primary U.K. competitor, Princess Yachts, also modernized its apprenticeship program. Last year, the Plymouth builder had about 300 applicants for 40 open positions. “It’s a highly competitive program,” says Alison Thompson, head of learning and development. “The candidates I interviewed were all of a very high standard. We also had many coming here from outside the area.”
Because some of the apprentices are 16 years old, Princess assists with finding accommodations for them locally. During the application process, candidates are given three questions and asked to make a video of their responses.
“We also do some online psychometric testing, as well as cognitive, verbal and reasoning tests,” Thompson says. “There is also a hands-on assessment for using tools.”
The four-year program includes an initial year at a local polytechnic college and the final three years working in the apprentice’s chosen field. The educational model, according to Thompson, works out to 70 percent on-site training, 20 percent interactions with others and 10 percent formal education.
“We’ve developed a strong network of buddies and mentors, so the apprentices learn the skills from an experienced staff member,” she says. “And we’re using social media like YouTube and TED Talks for the formal learning components. We find that this generation learns faster if they’re watching a bite-sized clip, rather than reading a manual.”
Princess also launched an Apprenticeship Ambassador program that helps it spread the word at career fairs and other events. Thompson has stepped up the apprenticeship programs to include jobs in human resources, business administration and customer service — jobs that are well outside the traditional apprenticeship model but provide a way to retain prized employees.
“The employees doing business administration are straight from college, but those doing apprenticeships in payroll and financing are existing members of staff,” Thompson says. “We plan to put more resources into apprenticeships, as we see it as the future for the success of the organization.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.