Industry looking for new ways to close its gender gap, opening career paths that some didn’t know existed
Barry Acker, president of The Landing School, recalls going to a supermarket last year and having the cashier — a young woman in her early 20s — ask him what The Landing School was.
After Acker explained that the school prepared people for careers in boatbuilding, the cashier told him she’d never thought about the fact that someone builds boats. Although she lives in coastal Maine, within a few miles of the school, it had never occurred to her that boatbuilding could be a viable career for a young woman.
Acker, and others in the industry, want to change that mindset.
“I think we need to do a better job of educating women about the opportunities in the industry and really target them through our admissions process and our marketing process,” he says. The same, he says, holds true for the industry as a whole.
Around the country, associations, institutions of higher learning and boating businesses are working to bring more women into the marine workplace. It can be a daunting task, because jobs in boating traditionally have been held by men.
“I think historically it’s always been that way,” says Clark Poston, program director at Rhode Island’s International Yacht Restoration School. “The boating industry has typically been dominated by males. I don’t know whether it’s attractive to many women.”
IYRS typically has one to three women in a class of about 32 students. The program has one female instructor.
At The Landing School, there are five women this year in a class of 72, and that has been close to the ratio for the last few years, Acker says. There are no female instructors.
Seeking role models
“We feel it’s such a traditionally white, male-dominated industry, especially the boatyard side, that there are lots of opportunities out there, and more women need to be taking advantage of them,” Aker says. “If we’re going to attract more women, we need to have some women in positions here who are going to be good role models.”
To help market the idea of boatbuilding and design as a career for women, The Landing School has put together an advisory committee on the topic.
LuAnn Craft Jarnagin, vice president/operational development for Brunswick Boat Group, is a member of that committee. The Brunswick vice president says a higher percentage of women are in white-collar jobs at her company than in the production ranks.
Jarnagin has been with the company for 22 years and admits, “I probably have not seen progress [on attracting women to production jobs] as quickly as we would like.
“I think it’s been pretty stable in the backroom operations, but probably not in the areas of product design, engineering and things of that nature,” Jarnagin says. “I don’t think it has as much to do with the industry — I think it’s just not as large a pool of applicants to draw from.”
Jarnagin and others say it largely goes back to the fact that fewer women are interested in engineering and other related math and science majors that could lead them into the boatbuilding profession. Also, she adds, women who do work in the industry need to be shown all their possible career paths.
“As leaders in the marine industry, we need to do a better job at being able to take the women that get here and move them to other disciplines,” she says. “Then, they’ll be able to help us recruit in those disciplines.”
Alison Coladarci, a 2005 graduate of The Landing School who works at Sparkman & Stephens as a yacht designer, says she’s one of only a couple women in her department. The ratio, she says, is similar to what she experienced in her classes at The Landing School.
“In general, I don’t put too much thought into the male/female ratio in my office,” she says. “It’s obvious that there are certainly more men in our industry than women, but I suppose I’m used to it by now. I never feel uncomfortable given this ratio, and would not wish to increase the number of females purely to equalize numbers.”
Coladarci, who also serves on The Landing School’s committee, agrees with Jarnagin that the industry’s gender gap is largely tied to the lower percentage of women in the fields of science, math and engineering.
Also, she says, “Careers in the marine industry are not as showcased as, say, careers in medical, educational or legal fields. When it comes time for students to work toward a career, they are less likely to select a career in the marine industry because they might not have any information on yacht design or boatbuilding, for example.”
That makes the gender gap even greater, Coladarci says.
But there is some good news on that front. Female enrollment at the Riviera Beach Maritime Academy, a public charter high school located near the Intrados Waterway in Riviera Beach, Fla., is on the rise. The academy offers the core curriculum of a traditional high school, in addition to specialized courses in marine industry topics. Students can focus on skills training that can lead to employment after high school graduation.
What’s attracting the girls? “Probably the science [such as marine biology] or drafting components draws them in,” says acting principal Tonya Hicks-Brown. “But then we expose them to the hands-on, and as they tell other girls about the school, then more girls come.”
This year the school has 106 students — about 26 percent of them female. Last year there were 12 to 15 female students, compared to 28 this year.
“Once they experience getting out and working with their hands and sanding and the wood craftsmanship part of it, they like it because they’re actually doing something and not just sitting in the classroom,” says Hicks-Brown.
“There are many opportunities to be entrepreneurial in the marine industry,” she says. “So we make sure we expose our young ladies to all kinds of opportunities, including job shadowing, networking with women leaders, and actual job placement in both small and large marine-related companies.”
Besides outreach and marketing efforts by the schools, many groups around the country are hosting special events designed to introduce young women to the marine industry.
Recently, the Maine Marine Trades Association took part in an event called “Women in Trades and Technology,” in which high school students were exposed to various careers ranging from firefighting to marine industry jobs.
At the event, groups of 10 girls each spent an hour learning about marine electrical skills and practiced stripping marine wire, crimping on terminal fittings on the wire, and doing heat-shrink tubing over the connections. They were able to test a DC electrical panel, and they learned about other careers in the marine field.
“The feedback was great,” says Stacey Palmer, industry/education liaison for the association. “We overheard a few saying, ‘This isn’t as boring as I thought it would be,’ and we heard a few of them say, ‘I could do this.’ ”
Palmer says the industry isn’t on the radar for young people, and cites a U.S. Department of Education Web site that lists about 16 general career paths and 83 or more occupations under those paths. The marine industry, she says, is not mentioned.
“It’s important for us to get on the radar for young people because we have an aging work force, and a lot of these companies, despite the current economic situation, are still growing and actively hiring,” Palmer says.
In addition to the “Women in Trades and Technology” event, the association recently partnered with “Jobs for Maine Graduates” for an event focusing on the marine and composites trade. More than 150 students were scheduled to take part.
Also, the group takes part in the “Building Bridges” program, in which teachers are introduced to the marine industry and create a teaching unit built around the field. For example, they take geometry and apply it to sail design.
“Even though some of these teachers are in schools right near the coastline, they’re admitting to me they had no idea [the] variety of jobs in this small area in our state,” Palmer says.
A mother/daughter day
On the other side of the country, Washington’s Skagit Valley College also is hosting events designed to bring women into the field. The school held a free mother/daughter technology event, which served as a one-day immersion program into marine technology, and about 40 girls and their moms took part.
“They got to spend the day doing really fun stuff that sometimes girls don’t get to do,” says Ann Avary, executive director of the state’s Center of Excellence for Marine Manufacturing and Technology. “Maybe a light bulb goes off and they say, ‘This is something I want to do.’ It’s exposing kids in a general sense, but in those events it’s exposing girls to the possibilities.”
The college also hosts a big festival each year and part of that is dedicated to attracting women to the marine trades.
“More young women are looking at careers that have been traditionally perceived as careers that males go into,” Avary says. “They’re taking those on, and we’re seeing women enter the trades at all levels, which is great.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.