Like most people born in 1990, Justin Bennett was on a four-year college track. He and his parents took it for granted that he would attend college before moving on to a steady desk job — until a stint at sailing camp, and later as a counselor, helped Bennett discover his passion for boats.
After his dad bought a powerboat from MarineMax in Norwalk, Conn., Bennett got a job there washing boats and answering phones. He went to college, majoring in computer science and engineering, and worked at a marina gas dock, where he asked technicians questions, operated machinery and put together engines. Then he dropped out of college to become a marine technician.
“It was all hands-on,” Bennett says. “I came to the realization that I don’t want to work at a desk for the rest of my life. I decided to stick with this. I was doing pretty well, and I’m continuing to do well for myself.”
Today, the 27-year-old is debt-free and makes about $80,000 a year as a certified Yamaha technician at All Seasons Marine Works in Norwalk, Conn. He also services boats on the side.
“There is a shortage of skilled laborers out there,” Bennett says. “I service my own car, my girlfriend’s boat, I work on my own boat, and I built my own house. I don’t call someone else to fix it; I fix it myself.”
The cyclical nature of the business isn’t a problem. During his winter month-long break — which he wishes was longer — he maxes out unemployment and takes a vacation. During summers, he often delivers boats to places like Nantucket, Mass., and Long Island, N.Y.
“Every day is different,” Bennett says. “I have so many friends who have crappy jobs. They all went to college and have a degree in something useless — and have so much debt.”
There is no estimate of how many skilled labor jobs the recreational boating industry’s manufacturers need to fill, but a workforce assessment that the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas conducted two years ago found that marine dealers would have at least 31,000 service technician positions unfilled by 2019, says MRAA president Matt Gruhn.
Gruhn says a dealer in northern Michigan reported a 4-month wait list for boat service. “That means if I bring my boat in to get serviced in June, I don’t get my boat back until the next season,” Gruhn says. “What does that do for boating?”
The industry is growing at around a 6 percent clip, a pace that is projected to last through 2018. But Gruhn fears a slowdown if people can’t get the boats they want, power them how they want or service the boats and engines they have. If consumers are making payments on a boat they can’t use for a whole season, there’s more of a chance they’ll leave boating, he says.
To address the concerns, the MRAA partnered with the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association to develop an industrywide workforce development plan, Gruhn says.
“It’s such a deep and multifaceted issue that the way things are going right now, everybody is kind of running in different directions while we’re all trying to solve the same problems,” Gruhn says. “What we need to do as an industry is kind of take a step back and see how we can best impact the challenges we face today.”
The industry would benefit from a high-level approach to help businesses take action at a regional level, he says: “This is a growth and sustainability issue for our industry. It’s a customer-service issue for our industry.”
More jobs, fewer workers
At the Progressive Insurance Miami International Boat Show, CEOs and presidents of manufacturers including Cobalt, Correct Craft (which includes seven boat brands and an engine brand), Marine Products (builders of Chaparral and Robalo Boats), Evinrude, NauticStar and S2 Yachts (builders of Pursuit and Tiara) all cited the skilled labor shortage as the No. 1 industry challenge.
And the marine industry is not alone. During the next decade, 2 million manufacturing jobs overall are expected to go unfilled because of the skills gap, according to a 2011 analysis by Deloitte Consulting and the Manufacturing Institute. Six out of 10 respondents said that skilled-production positions are unfilled because of a talent shortage, and that the rapid pace of changing technology compounds the problem.
When asked to look ahead three to five years, respondents said access to a highly skilled workforce would be the most important factor in their effectiveness — a factor ranked above product innovation and market share by a margin of 20 points, wrote Craig Giffi, U.S. automotive industry vice chairman and the report’s author.
“It’s not just that manufacturers are concerned about talent today,” Giffi stated. “This has been a serious issue for years, which begs the question of what must be done differently in order to achieve the right results.”
‘A cultural rebuild’
About 10,000 baby boomers are retiring each day, according to Pew Research. There are fewer people to fill their jobs because people born in the 1960s and beyond believe the American dream includes a four-year-degree that leads to a “respectable career,” says Susan Zellers, executive director for the Marine Trades Association of Maryland.
“It’s rare to find a mom and dad who embrace that kid who wants to work with his hands,” Zellers says. “Parents continue to push kids toward a four-year degree. I still think that’s our No. 1 problem.”
To help combat the stigma, California is spending $200 million to improve vocational education programs, and an additional $6 million to improve the image of such programs.
“It’s a cultural rebuild,” Randy Emery, a welding instructor at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif., told PBS. “I’m a survivor of that teardown mode of the ’70s and ’80s, that college-for-all thing.”
Employers also are reconsidering how to deliver a career, rather than just a job, to millennial workers.
“What is it employers are doing differently now than they did 30 years ago? They can’t just be thinking, ‘I need someone now to paint this boat,’” Zellers says. “They have to think of cultivating this millennial working as someone who supports this industry as a whole.”
A federal initiative
As part of the Trump administration’s efforts to expand apprenticeships and close the skills gap, students enrolled in job-training programs that lead to industry-based credentials are now eligible for Pell Grants.
Many community and technical colleges that offer short-term programs, however, don’t require enough hours to qualify for those grants, according to Pam Lendzion, executive director for the American Boat Builders & Repairers Association.
Lendzion met last fall with senior officials at the White House and U.S. Departments of Labor and Commerce. She told them that without financial aid, some students can’t afford training to fill the growing job demand.
In a similar vein, Yamaha Marine became an official apprenticeship program with the Department of Labor in April. It has outlined the required material for operating and conducting an apprentice program at authorized Yamaha dealerships, says Joe Maniscalco, service division manager for Yamaha Marine Group.
Because the company is part of the federally authorized program, dealers can register to receive funding that offsets training and apprentice costs.
Each state has different incentives for apprenticeships. For example, Minnesota will commit $5,000 for a dealer apprenticeship program. New Jersey will provide 50 percent of the apprentice’s salary for six months. Yamaha is building a database of what each state offers, says Ron Zastocki with Yamaha Marine.
The product of an apprenticeship, Maniscalco says the program will bring structure to Yamaha Marine University and create a generation of mentors to help new apprentices.
The company has worked with high schools and colleges around the country to implement marine outboard programs. “We’ve partnered with 53 schools nationally, and there are another 40 or 50 in the wings,” Zastocki says.
Spearheading that initiative has been a ground-up process, says Yamaha Marine Group President Ben Speciale. When the company sought a training manual to share with schools joining the program, it could locate only the 1985 textbook Understanding the Outboard Motor, updated in 2002. Last year, the company created a new training manual for schools.
Yamaha is also providing its newest engines to schools free of cost because the programs are so strapped for funds, Maniscalco says.
Getting more on board
A recent Massachusetts Marine Trades Association conference focused almost entirely on workforce development. Frustrated dealers said that cultivating a new workforce largely has been left up to them.
“To put the responsibility on every boatyard to train workers is not right,” Pat Desmond of 3A Marine in Hingham, Mass., said during a panel discussion. “We’re all working with thinner crews; they’re thin now, and they’re getting thinner because of age.”
This year the Progressive New York International Boat Show and the New England Boat Show offered career days for high school and college students. In New York, 117 students attending marine schools listened to industry heavyweights speak about opportunities in recreational boating.
New England drew around 100 students to its event, where Massachusetts Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Rosalin Acosta said students shouldn’t feel as if they need to choose between a tech school and a four-year degree.
“You can leave the industry and choose to come back in a different capacity, or in the same role,” she said.
Such flexibility is a common occurrence in the marine industry, says Ed Lofgren of 3A Marine, where half of the 14 technicians have college degrees.
Marine companies also scheduled October events in conjunction with Manufacturing Day — offering plant tours and demonstrations, letting students cast metal, and reaching out to women.
Tennessee-based Malibu Boats participated in the Loudon County Economic Development Agency’s first Manufacturing Day event, offering tours and a boatbuilding introduction to more than 60 high-school students.
“At some point we seem to have stopped talking about the manufacturing industry in schools,” says Debbie Kent, vice president of human resources at Malibu. “So, our goal in participating in events like this is to reinvigorate the conversation.”
Correct Craft hosted around 200 students at Pleasurecraft Engine Group in Little Mountain, S.C.; SeaArk Boats in Monticello, Ark.; the Bass Cat and Yar-Craft factory in Gainesville, Ark.; and Centurion and Supreme Boats in Merced, Calif.
“U.S. manufacturing is projected to have a shortage of workers the next 10 years despite offering great careers with competitive pay and benefits,” Correct Craft CEO Bill Yeargin says. “The combination of a growing economy and retiring baby boomers is projected to leave U.S. manufacturers with a shortage of available workers. “As an industry, we need to continue sharing the wonderful career opportunities we offer.”
Showcasing opportunities creates more excitement than just telling students about them.
“Whenever we host teachers at our facility and demonstrate the available opportunities for both high-school and college graduates, they leave here amazed,” Kent says.
When Yamaha Marine hosted about 100 high-school and college students at its Indianapolis-based Yamaha Precision Propeller Industries plant, the operators were the “star of the show,” says YPPI general manager Jonathon Burns.
“This wasn’t planned this way,” Burns says. “It just happened this way. They came up to the kids and were really talking through how they did their job and why they did it. I was really excited to see that. It made the tour more authentic.”
Integrating hands-on experiences helped engage all the attendees. At the manufacturing-day events, visitors poured molten tin out of a hot pot and into shells to create their own Yamaha keychains.
“It was so awesome; it exceeded my expectations,” Burns says. “It wasn’t just a tour around the facility. We didn’t just talk about how we do the process; we let them do the process. It went over really, really well.”
Brunswick-owned Lund Boats used Manufacturing Day to continue its outreach to women, who have been underrepresented in manufacturing.
“Beyond targeting students to make them aware of opportunities in manufacturing, Lynda Everson [from Lund human resources] also is reaching out throughout the year not only to students, but also to women in the community to let them know that they, too, are welcome,” says Brunswick Corp. spokesman Dan Kubera.
Bringing women into the manufacturing workforce could help move the needle, Kubera says, pointing to The Manufacturing Institute’s STEP Ahead initiative. (STEP is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Production.)
Women make up one of U.S. manufacturing’s largest pools of untapped talent, according to a 2017 report by Deloitte. Women totaled about 47 percent of the U.S. labor force, but only 29 percent of the manufacturing workforce in 2016. Research shows that gender diversity leads to innovation, return on equity, and profitability, according to the report.
To reach this untapped workforce, several women at Lund’s New York Mills, Minn., plant were interviewed for a video.
“When I first came here, I didn’t know about power tools, but I was very willing to learn, and they were very patient with me,” Michelle Gallmeier, who leads the finishing department, says in the video. (Both of her daughters also work at the plant.) “In almost seven years I’ve worked my way up from line worker to be a trainer, and now I’m a lead. And there are many more opportunities for growth here.”
Galey’s Marine in Bakersfield, Calif., doesn’t have a service technician shortage, says president and CEO Don Galey.
“We pay them all well, and it’s not that they’re just on a salary; they’re on a commission as well as a salary,” Galey says. “Therefore, they want to learn. They want to do things faster and better, and they can only do that by having the knowledge and having the best tools that are available for that job.”
When the company built its new facility, Galey focused on the service department, giving those workers an environment to help them succeed.
“So many stores have their service area in the garage or out back by the alley,” he says, adding that the location makes it difficult to move boats in and out. At Galey’s Marine, the lot fits 50 boats, and three tractors pick boats off trailers. There are eight service stalls — one per technician — each with a hoist and perforated systems to catch oil, gasoline and water.
Galey’s main technician has been with the company for 35 years; that technician’s father was service manager before his retirement. All are sent to training and technician schools and have regular meetings; if someone is sick midrepair, another can finish the job. When manufacturers come out with new tools or products, Galey’s tries to be the first to order them.
All of that goes a long way toward attracting—and keeping—workers, Galey says. “We make sure we do everything that’s possible to make it easier for that technician to do a better job,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue.