America’s marine workforce continues to face a skilled labor shortage. The approximately $38 billion marine sector — of which around $7 billion is recreational boating- and fishing-related — relies upon an aging and shrinking labor pool for boatyards and factory floors industrywide.

On and along Washingtons Puget Sound waters, education leaders see not crisis but opportunity. Three efforts stand out in particular, in terms of creating a new foundation for future workers.

Fireboat training is part of the Core Plus Maritime curriculum.

Fireboat training is part of the Core Plus Maritime curriculum.

Bringing Back Shop Class

The purging of shop class from high schools for decades is widely seen as contributing to America’s anemic skilled workforce. Reversing that trend is Core Plus, a Seattle-area nonprofit organization whose partners include Boeing, the Manufacturers Industrial Council, the AGC Education Foundation and the Washington State Office Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“A lot of leaders in academics don’t value shop class like they should, seeing it as a waste of money and space,” says Tory Gering, program manager for the Manufacturers Industrial Council and Core Plus Maritime. “Some people say things like, ‘It’s hands-on STEM labs or what have you. But to me, it’s shop, and it’s important.”

Core Plus Maritime is essentially a free, ful­ly accredited curriculum for high schools, with industry network assistance. One
example is support for aluminum MIG welding, a needed skill in the marine
industry. All students attain a Washington Safe Boater’s Education card.

And Core Plus Maritime alumni are entering the marine industry. One student is working on attaining his 200-ton captain’s certification and engineer credentials after a stint aboard a vessel in the Gulf of Mexico with the Pacific Sailor’s Union. Another worked in Seattle area boatyards after graduation and is interested in boat manufacturing.

The Tacoma Boat Builders staff (from left): Jason Reddock, Dan Mason, Shannon A. Shea, Chuck Graydon, Isaiah Rivera and Jessica Crask. 

The Tacoma Boat Builders staff (from left): Jason Reddock, Dan Mason, Shannon A. Shea, Chuck Graydon, Isaiah Rivera and Jessica Crask. 

“Having Core Plus Maritime be a free program for students that gets money for instructors, as well as professional development, is huge,” Gering says. “That’s the best way to be equitable. You’re simply giving them skills, hard and soft. We’re the bridge to careers from K-12. We help you find that next step, whatever it may be.”

Building Something New

One way to expose youth to the marine industry is to devote a new school to a marine-focused curriculum. Next fall, Seattle’s Highline Public School system will open Maritime High School to its inaugural class.

“There are an exorbitant amount of folks retiring out of the marine industry,” says Tremain Holloway, Maritime High School’s first principal, who adds that learning will be based on the environment, marine sciences and maritime careers with an emphasis on experiential learning on and off the water. The school will incorporate workforce internships into the junior and senior years to guide students into maritime careers, college pursuits or both.

Aluminum WIG welding is a vital skillset in Pacific Northwest boatbuilding.

Aluminum WIG welding is a vital skillset in Pacific Northwest boatbuilding.

“There are more opportunities for our younger folks to come in, and some very lucrative jobs,” Holloway says.

While the school’s permanent location is yet to be announced, it is expected to welcome students from South Seattle, whose Rainier Beach neighborhood was America’s most racially diverse zip code in the 2010 census.

“The ocean is vast with so many opportunities,” Holloway says. “It’s time for the youth and their families of South Seattle to have access to these opportunities.”

Empowering Troubled Kids

Tacoma Boat Builders is a nonprofit that focuses on at-risk and court-involved youth through mentoring programs, woodworking and boatbuilding. The group is based on the Thea Foss Waterway, a bustling port with everything from working tugboats to luxury motoryachts. “In many ways, the boats are a means to an end,” says executive director Shannon A. Shea. “Part of what we’re doing is teaching our youth how to be useful by being useful to them.”

Seattle’s Maritime High School is scheduled to open this fall. 

Seattle’s Maritime High School is scheduled to open this fall. 

Tacoma Boat Builders teaches students who are under the state’s protection, such as in foster care. Prediversion participants often arrive after being involved with a fight or property damage at school.

“We do also have full-blown felony-level offenses and the risk of short- or long-term incarceration,” Shea says. “The program is designed to help young people realize they belong in their community and not a system.”

Boatwright Paul Birkey, whose Tacoma-based Belina Interiors styled super­yachts for 38 years before closing up shop in 2019, founded Tacoma Boat Builders. A network of Puget Sound builders, sailors, educators and the Pierce County Juvenile Court system helped to make the idea a reality, starting with six participants and a few volunteers in May 2014. There have since been 28 volunteer mentors and 632 participants.

Tacoma Boat Builders founder Paul Birkey. 

Tacoma Boat Builders founder Paul Birkey. 

“We don’t judge you for who you are or what you did, it’s up to you whether or not you want to follow that path,” says a recent TBB graduate. “We do not care about who you are, we only care about what you will become. This is a free place where you can be who you are or who you aren’t. Choose or not choose what you want to do.

Shea adds: “In my ideal world, the boat shop and the programs that we offer open portals; new views into a world they might not even know about or know that’s open to them.” 

This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue.

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