Planting the Bug

Passion ignites young people to join the industry, but creating it requires early exposure
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ABYC has a new curriculum for high schools to develop marine service technicians.

ABYC has a new curriculum for high schools to develop marine service technicians.

Alyssa Linkamper had spent four years in the U.S. Air Force as a jet-engine mechanic when, in 2004, she found herself facing the reality of an escalating war in Iraq. She thrived in military culture and loved working with her hands, but as a single mother living in England with a 1-year-old and no family nearby, she worried.

“It panicked me thinking, If I get deployed, who’s going to watch her?” says Linkamper, who is 37.

She returned to North Attleboro, Mass., and worked for eight years in medical billing at a nursing facility. Then something began to gnaw at her. “Financially it was good, but it was mundane. I found myself drudging into work every day like in Joe Versus the Volcano with Tom Hanks,” Linkamper says. “It just got to me.”

Linkamper attended an open house at a local technical school, thinking she would get back into aircraft mechanics, but a marine technician program caught her eye. “The instructor was asking, ‘What’s your background in boating, do you have a boat?’ ” she recalls, laughing. “I said, ‘Pretty much, I know they go on water.’ I liked the vibe. It’s such an obscure industry, and it’s clearly its own community. I wanted to be a part of that.”After becoming the only female in the technical school’s nine-month program, Linkamper earned a Gold Wrench Award for excellent grades and attendance. The school nominated her for a national award recognizing an outstanding graduate, and she won that, too.

She did her required internship at Onset Bay Marina in Buzzards Bay, Mass., and its management snapped her up full time, moving her from mechanic to dockmaster, where she learned how to drive and dock a boat, as well as how to rebuild docks. “That gave me a whole new skill set,” she says.

In addition to her job at Onset, Linkamper works part time as the Massachusetts Marine Trades Association’s workforce liaison, to get more marine curricula running.

“I’m a firm believer there’s a spot for everyone in this industry,” says Linkamper. “We need to market more, put success stories out there — not just about people who grew up in the industry, but people like me who didn’t. It was something I stumbled into. I’m so thankful I did. I missed the camaraderie of the military, and that’s what I found in this industry.”

Trade associations have different ideas about how to approach the industry’s skilled worker shortage.

Trade associations have different ideas about how to approach the industry’s skilled worker shortage.

Growing Traction

It’s an exciting time for workforce development in Massachusetts, in part because of an amendment that passed last year allotting $100,000 to the MMTA, says executive director Randall Lyons. That money funds Linkamper’s paycheck and will help support programs designed to develop boating industry employees. It also will go to youth summer job programs in the industry.

“What that money is doing is connecting facilities that need workers with schools that are providing education in a way that makes those students worthwhile for you,” Lyons says. “We’re focusing on career development activity, and our career days are expanding. We are getting you that help.”

Four new marine programs were recently started in the Bay State. The Community Boating Center of New Bedford launched a program targeting underemployed 19- to 24-year-olds; Nantucket took part in an Innovative Pathways program that would provide certain schools training for two careers, and it chose the marine and nursing industries; and New Bedford Career Technical Education program has nine students in a program that goes hand in hand with an Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School program. Both are doing 15-week training programs, with an introduction to the boating industry and opportunities to make contacts with industry leaders.

Career days have been a part of a growing number of boat shows, including in New York, Boston, Atlanta, Atlantic City and and the Northwest Sportshow in Minneapolis. For those, the National Marine Manufacturers Association partners with local marine trade associations to reach out to vocational high schools and maritime schools, and to invite students to meet and talk with a panel of speakers.

At the New England Boat Show’s inaugural career day, Lyons told attendees his story about starting as a head cleaner at Nantucket Boat Basin. He spent the summer cleaning 18 heads, each with multiple showers and stalls, for a marina with a large transient population — and he returned each summer. The third year, he was promoted to head cleaner supervisor; eventually, he became business manager for four marinas, serving on the MMTA board of directors.

“I love getting the word out about this industry to young people who might otherwise not know about it,” Lyons says. “We gave $5,000 to Community Boating in Boston. They work with low-income city youth. The funding we gave them will help hire staff to do youth boatbuilding. Any additional funds they have left will be used to offset the costs for some students to attend, because they don’t turn youth away.”

An Industrywide Effort

While organizations are increasing exposure to the industry, the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas is working with the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association to identify apprenticeship programs that dealers have put into place. “Then we’ll take best practices from each and give other dealers ideas and concepts they can use to build their own program,” says MRAA president Matt Gruhn.

In terms of nationwide efforts, the MRAA worked with RIMTA on a National 10 + 1 plan; the American Boat Builders and Repairers Association lobbied for apprenticeship programs on Capitol Hill; and marine trades associations are developing their own plans. Lyons says he’d like to see those efforts become more streamlined, but some worry work is being duplicated.

“In the follow-up to the National 10 + 1 plan, it would be great to have one person across the industry working on these problems,” Lyons says. “To promote collaboration over duplication, it would be nice to have someone focusing on pulling all the industry representatives together to address these issues and share ideas. We’re all spending more money than if we were sharing on a national level.”

The American Boat and Yacht Council has developed a curriculum that’s ready to drop into schools’ technical programs, says ABYC president John Adey. The program helps schools implement standards-based marine service classes with an inland or coastal focus.

Ten schools are using ABYC’s Marine Service Technology fundamentals curriculum, says spokeswoman Shannon Aronson, and the association assists 15 Marine League Schools — post-secondary schools with the ABYC’s standards-based curriculum development, and instructor training and certification. The curriculum costs $5,499, with a first-year annual ABYC business-level membership included; an annual maintenance fee of $599 includes ongoing discounted rates, access to program updates and business membership renewal.Many schools the lack funds to support such a program. However, the curriculum meets Federal Perkins Loan requirements, so schools can apply, and the program easily integrates into apprenticeship programs, Aronson says.

“The marine trades associations should start applying for grants, encouraging businesses to certify technicians,” Adey says. “ABYC develops this drop-in curriculum. We have a lot of the foundations of what we need to get things done.”

MMTA director Randall Lyons (second from right, 1998) began his career at a marina.  “I love getting the word out to young people who might not know about the industry.”

MMTA director Randall Lyons (second from right, 1998) began his career at a marina.  “I love getting the word out to young people who might not know about the industry.”

Instructor Shortage

It’s up to the industry to convince educators and state legislators that marine workforce development is a worthwhile investment. Getting those people’s attention is easier when an industry makes up a large portion of a state’s gross domestic product, as the marine industry does in Florida and Rhode Island. But the task is more difficult in states such as Massachusetts, where marine is competing with the tech and health care industries.

“I really don’t know how we do a better job in marketing our industry, other than we should probably show what fun you can have in this industry,” says 3A Marine founder Ed Lofgren, who spearheaded the workforce issue decades ago. “I’ve really enjoyed my 50 or 60 years in our industry. That would be my message to educators. This is a profession and industry you can really get into and enjoy.”

A growing teacher shortage, particularly in STEM classes, creates another roadblock to implementing programs, says Steve Kitchen, vice president of corporate education and training at the New England Institute of Technology. To address that shortage, ABYC is launching a “Train the Trainer” program in Annapolis, Md., this summer to help train instructors, says ABYC education vice president Ed Sherman.

“We’ve had situations where administrators were waiting for people to retire so they could hire people to teach relevant content to today’s world,” Sherman says. “Teachers are going to teach what they’re most comfortable with themselves, and that’s one of the challenges when trying to cover a comprehensive curriculum.”

Sherman envisions “Train the Trainer” as a multiday event to teach not only how to become a better teacher, but also to provide technical content that would bring teachers up to date with the latest industry advancements.

Apprenticeship Opportunities

People who are exposed to the industry at a young age are far more likely to consider a career path in it, Sherman says, and it behooves retailers to seek help before the experienced technicians retire. One company that Sherman helps train approached him with what he considered a terrific idea. “What this company decided to do is offer retired techs to come in and act as mentors for the new hires on a part-time basis,” he says. “They start out at the bottom and work their way up. I see some opportunities there.”

There are young people who have gotten the bug. Alessandra Nelson, a senior who is studying Marine Systems Technology at New York Harbor School, spoke to around 120 students who gathered for career day at the New York Boat Show — and the marine dealers in the room noticed her as a potential future employee. That attention thrilled Nelson. “I want to sell boats,” she says. “I just didn’t know how to break into it.”

For Linkamper, leaving the military and finding a way into the industry seems like a perfect match. “The first time I got on a boat, that was it for me,” she says. “It’s all about early exposure — getting people out on a boat — because it’s like a bug. You plant a bug. Most people who are in this industry, they’re in it because they love it and are passionate about it. It’s very hard to leave.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.

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