It’s a far different labor climate today than most marine dealers encountered when they first began their businesses. Workforce challenges continue to mount, and the effects of the Great Recession linger — if not in bottom lines, then in the fear of another financial crisis.
The Massachusetts Marine Trade Association’s annual Business of Boating Conference last week focused largely on the changing workforce, with speakers such as Steve Kitchin, vice president of corporate education and training for the New England Institute of Technology, illustrating how different today’s workforce is compared with 20 years ago.
“The labor force is grayer but it’s also more ethnically diverse than it’s ever been,” Kitchin said at the conference. “Just this past year, we reached equal labor force participation rates between men and women.”
Carpenters, electricians, machinists, pipelayers, plumbers and welders were almost entirely more than 95 percent male, according to data from NEIT and American Community Surveys by the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University. Welders were 94.5 percent male, despite a ratio of 52.6 percent male for all jobs, Kitchin said.
“If your ratio looks more like this in some departments, you better start thinking about how you engage women in a working environment,” he said.
The conference, during breakout sessions, also touched on local issues affecting Massachusetts businesses, and the looming fear that haunts businesses in general: the specter of another recession.
Ed Lofgren Jr., the founder of 3A Marine, shared insights on how to make dealerships recession-proof using examples from past downturns.
“You’ve got to figure out what’s selling in your market and focus on it, whether it’s service or slips,” Lofgren said. “During the last recession, there were a lot of vacancies at marinas. Our boat dealership did the best job we could to help those marinas so they could survive, because we knew we needed them. Look at what’s happened now — they’re all full. Guess what? When my salesman picks up the phone and says hello to the local marina, they listen, even though they’re full. It’s a two-way street.”
Lofgren also encouraged dealers to stay as debt-free as possible, as banks typically prefer to do business with established partners during tough financial times.
Lofgren, who has focused on education in the industry and workforce development since he launched 3A Marine Service in 1964, was presented the MRAA’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the conference.
During his decade on the MRAA board of directors, Lofgren helped launch the group’s Educational Foundation. He continued to serve as president of the foundation for years after he stepped down from the MRAA board, and currently serves as chairman of the Massachusetts Marine Trades Educational Trust.
He is also an advocate for growing post-secondary education opportunities for aspiring marine technicians, according to the MRAA.
“Ed Lofgren has made, and continues to make, significant impact across the marine industry,” MRAA president Matt Gruhn said in a statement. “He has always been a great proponent for continuing education and has advocated for the future of boating, especially around the topic of our industry’s workforce.”
The 2019 MMTA Legislator of the Year was presented to state Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, the House Ways and Means Chair. Michlewitz has been a strong supporter of the boating industry in Massachusetts, specifically with regard to workforce initiatives, according to MMTA government representative Jamy Madeja, who presented the award.
Pam Lendzion, with the American Boat Builders and Repairers Association, delivered a presentation on cultivating leadership at all levels and a breakout session called “Train the Trainer.” Her presentations focused on cultural shifts in today’s workforce and underscored that it’s more important than ever for companies to develop mission statements and embody them.
“Companies need to be value-driven if they’re going to attract people,” Lendzion said.
“People in the workforce want to know what’s going on in a company. They want to know where they fit, and they want to be part of something larger than themselves.”