Cultivating a Workforce

How four dealerships launched recruitment and apprentice programs
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At Rambo Marine, technicians are required to find their own apprentices. “They take pride in who they bring in, “ Bennett Rambo says.

At Rambo Marine, technicians are required to find their own apprentices. “They take pride in who they bring in, “ Bennett Rambo says.

The marine industry has focused on a growing technician shortage for about a year now, but some dealers that identified the problem years ago have already put apprenticeship programs into place.

Four dealerships with paid-apprentice programs are seeing common themes already. First is that a good cultural fit is key to success, and the best way to find it is through the recommendations of current team members. Dealerships running successful programs also stress a safe work environment with a collaborative culture that focuses on employee appreciation, in good and tough times alike.

“When the recession hit, we held a companywide meeting to determine what we should do,” says Jeff Strong of Strong’s Marine. “We came up with a plan for us all to work four-day workweeks and take a pay cut — from management to the service department — so nobody would get laid off. We took a vote, and that’s what we did.”

Bennett Rambo of Rambo Marine says he’s learned that there are no shortcuts to success. “If you don’t have  a good company culture, you’re not going to get good people,” he says. “If you don’t invest in them, you’re not going to get good people. … If you’ve got a good business, culture and program, the guy you took from high school who didn’t have a career path, and you gave him one, is appreciative.”

Beyond the commonality of having a strong company culture, each of the dealers with apprenticeship programs has a unique program that fits its business model. For Rambo Marine, which has two locations in Alabama, the program started as a way to recruit young people as detailers. That effort evolved into a more structured program that has continued since Rambo sold to One Water Marine in 2015.

Rambo’s first apprentice became a lead technician last year. All the apprentices are paid a flat wage until they become lead techs and can earn on billable hours. “Once they become a lead technician, one of their criteria is they have to find their apprentice and bring them to me,” Rambo says. “That’s been really successful. We’ve always said our best employees are the result of referrals, so we incorporated that into the apprenticeship program.”

The technician who is mentoring can earn more money because he can have the apprentice help with “non-billable minutia,” giving the tech more billable hours, Rambo says. “They take pride in who they bring in because that helps their paychecks,” he adds.

Chip Watkins of Accurate Marine, on Long Island in Bohemia, N.Y., approached his local Boards of Cooperative Educational Services school, a New York-specific program, to collaborate on a marine apprenticeship. The school and Accurate Marine developed a work-study program that allowed a student to work two paid days a week at the dealership. “Now he’s working for me full time, and it’s eight years later,” Watkins says.

Since then, BOCES has implemented Yamaha’s apprenticeship curriculum. Two of three apprentices from the program have gained full-time employment at Accurate, and Watkins says he will return in the spring. “They’re coming out of this program working on real, live stuff from today, which are the skills that are needed for them to be employable,” he says. “They’re never going to come out of school and know everything.”

Dealer principals should understand that techs coming from generic tech schools are going to need training, he says. “All my guys go to school every year,” Watkins says. “We have to keep up with technology. Yesterday’s technology is not today’s technology.”

Accurate Marine’s first apprentice technician, who is gaining a master tech certification, is now charged with training apprentices. It’s important to give budding technicians ownership once they’ve earned it, Watkins says. The work has to be checked, but it’s important to reward them by giving them responsibilities, as well as fair compensation.

MarineMax launched MarineMax University in 2016 to address the growing tech shortage at the company’s 62 locations, says Gayle Niedenfuer, MarineMax operations director. The program consists of a six-month curriculum taught by a full-time instructor who used to be a MarineMax technician before becoming an instructor at MMI, a marine mechanic school in Florida.

“When we did this business plan, we really thought hard about this because it was expensive,” Niedenfuer says. “We needed someone who was up to speed on the hands-on work, but also someone who could teach and relate to the young people. He’s really the reason this is successful.”

The Clearwater, Fla., MarineMax location had space in the service department to implement a classroom. Students spend half their time there — following the instructor, or conducting online or manufacturer training — and the other half helping technicians. The students, who are paid, are asked which MarineMax location they’d be interested in transferring to, but are not asked to promise that they will continue to work at MarineMax. It might sound risky, but MarineMax has had 40 graduates — six of whom were serving other roles at the company but wanted to become technicians — and only two dropouts. One of those was offered another opportunity, and the other left for family reasons.

MarineMax now is looking to establish another university, in Boston, a location chosen because “one of the six came from a store up North and decided he liked Florida,” Niedenfuer says, laughing. The company also is implementing a retail apprenticeship; the first will start with MarineMax Russo at the New England International Boat Show in Boston.

Strong’s Marine, with seven locations in New York, has been offering paid apprenticeships for about six years. For the owner, hiring somebody who has qualities the company values is paramount. Strong has created several positions for people whom current team members recommended because they had the right work ethic and attitude.

“We bring a younger person in, give them aptitude tests and partner them up with one or two people they can shadow with,” Strong says. “As time goes on, if it seems like they have a legitimate interest, we wean them off that in graduating steps.”

If the person is a good fit, Strong’s will invest in training and/or school. “The real key is to keep the program as individual as possible,” Strong says. “We try to map out a strategy so apprentices can cultivate the skills that are most interesting to them. The more collaborative it is that way, the more successful the apprentice.”

The company culture has developed over many years. “We are known to be a very progressive, supportive and growing company,” Strong says. “People know when they join us that’s part of the expectation. If you’re not that kind of person, you’re not going to make it at Strong’s. That sharing type of spirit is what we look for as a group.

“If we’re creating the best possible environment, including training and offering profit sharing, 401(k), dental insurance, and opportunities for growth, sharing, different committees people can be a part of — we have employee Spirit Awards — if you give people the opportunity to be involved, hopefully we’ll be the employers of choice.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.

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