You’d be hard-pressed to find a more positive and passionate person when it comes to growing the marine industry than Wendy Mackie, CEO of the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association. The high-energy 46-year-old has been in the industry for 12 years. She and the team at RIMTA recently authored a workforce plan for the national marine industry, but Mackie admits she is a constant student of the marine trades and learns more about it every day.
When she first started working with the industry, she took some school-age kids on a tour of Hinckley Yachts. When she returned home to her life partner of 14 years wearing a hat emblazoned with the Hinckley logo, “He said, ‘Where did you get a Hinckley hat? They don’t just give those to anyone,’” she laughed.
“I started thinking, ‘I wonder why he thinks Hinckley is so exciting?’ That’s before I knew the players in the industry, but that’s what it’s been like: learning the marine industry hands-on as I go.”
She and her partner Chuck live in Jamestown, R.I., and they have a Sunfish that they sail off a nearby beach. They are also members of Freedom Boat Club. Chuck is a sailor and the two enjoy taking an annual charter sailboat vacation. This year, they will be making their first international cruise in Croatia.
Q: How long have you been the CEO of RIMTA and how did you come to join the organization?
A: I’ve been working with RIMTA since 2008, initially as a workforce development consultant through my previous job at MyTurn, a youth development organization in Brockton, MA. In 2011, I was hired as the CEO. When I started working with RIMTA’s Education & Training Committee in 2008, we were able to focus on a strategy. We had gotten a couple of grants for workforce development that allowed for industry capacity building--and we were encouraged to explore ways to do that.
Q: How big of a role does the marine industry play in Rhode Island’s economy and workforce?
A: We make up about 5 percent of the state’s economy. We have 1,712 marine businesses and 13,337 jobs with annual revenues of $2.65 billion. We just got those numbers from our most recent Economic Impact Study completed by the University of Rhode Island.
Q: What is your background in the marine industry?
A: In 2006, Ed Lofgren from 3A Marine in Hingham, Massachusetts, reached out to MyTurn, a nonprofit where I was Director of Strategic Growth. He contacted us because we focused on youth development and connecting young people to careers. Ed said: “You have people who need jobs, and we have an industry that needs people. Let’s get together and do something.” So we did. MyTurn asked me to run this program to introduce people to the marine trades. I said, “I’d be happy to; what’s the marine trades?”
I implemented programs to get people into the industry, to develop a pipeline of individuals who could work in the marine trades.
Q: Are you a currently a boater? Do you own a boat?
A: I’m a member of Freedom Boat Club. I like to float quietly with the current or with the waves. I just like to be on the water. I took a 12-day a river rafting trip through the Grand Canyon about six years ago. It was amazing and I’ll never do it again.
Q: What is your workforce development background?
A: I’ve been in alternative education, youth development and workforce development for about 20 years, always with nonprofits on the social side of things. When I started working with the marine industry, I started thinking about why it’s smart to understand an industry if you want to work in it. At RIMTA, we develop workforce programming for the hardest-to-serve populations – small businesses and un- or under-employed. My colleague at RIMTA and I both come from social service workforce development backgrounds so we always design our programming for the hardest-to-serve populations.
Q: It sounds rewarding to work in workforce development. Is it?
A: Workforce development is very fulfilling. If a person doesn’t have a job, it takes from his or her self-esteem. They want to be able to provide for their family and provide for others. One reason why I love blue collar work and the marine industry is you can learn on the job to become a highly successful mechanic or run a boatyard, for example.
Q: You attended a technical high school so how personal of an issue is the workforce shortage to you?
A: I went to a technical high school. Mechanical drafting was my trade. My family was all blue collar. My dad was a master electrician, my mother worked in electronics, one brother is an engineer and the other is a great auto mechanic—so we’re all hands-on types.
Q: You authored the 10+1 strategy for the marine industry. Describe that experience.
A: The thing I feel most proud of is that we have a tangible plan that I can’t wait to implement. Although I’ve never had a child, I think the experience is like having a baby. You can’t remember the pain and nine months of mental and physical stress. You can only see the beauty in the product. That’s exactly how I felt once the 10+1 strategy was published in a beautiful format and was easily readable. It was a huge group effort to even just come up with the basic content. The entire RIMTA team put its heart and soul into it; the plan includes the collective workforce knowledge that we’ve earned through years of developing our workforce in Rhode Island. We worked directly with MRAA’s Matt Gruhn and NMMA’s Thom Dammrich to develop the outline, the content focus and the user focus. We polled several focus groups, did one-on-ones with leaders. We attended and spoke with industry at IBEX and MDCE. We sent drafts of the plan to MTAs and the RBLC workforce taskforce members. It culminated in the logos of the 25 regional and national associations that worked with us to make the plan relevant and make sure the product has impact.
Q: Is that one of the benefits of the marine industry being the size it is, that you can work together nationally on a project like this?
A: There’s opportunity as an industry for us to work together nationally. At the end of it all, 25 marine trade associations can call it their own. They bought into it. They’re going to implement it. The way we all worked together on this is a model we can apply in other areas. Environmental, for example, is big one—when you think about how we’re going to grow the industry together and look at environmental responsibility as a key component. When you think about millennials and the current generation and the hot topic that environmental sustainability is right now. How do we leverage that to promote boating to the career seekers and the people who may or may not be boaters already?
Q: Did it surprise people that RIMTA spearheaded this?
A: I’ve been preaching about workforce development for several years now. Initially at NMTC, I would tell my colleagues how RIMTA brought in several thousand dollars in grants for workforce development, and how they can too. And the next year, I would tell them about the program we created and had success with and offer them the model. We all get calls here at RIMTA for help with workforce development so we’re looking at how we can best support the industry associations and employers.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you encountered developing the strategy?
A: Part of it was ensuring that it was relevant and actionable for the entire industry. Not every state has a marine trades association. Every employer doesn’t have the same resources. We had to write a plan so anyone could start where they are. We wanted to make it versatile so everyone felt they could get going on it right away.
Q: Why is the marine industry having such difficulty attracting and retaining younger workers?
A: It’s a combination of things. We have a high population of baby boomers in our industry and that’s what the boating population looks like, too. There’s the blue-collar connotation of working in our industry. And then there is the cultural issue of parents saying to their kids, “You’re going to college.” I went to a technical school, because in my family, if you didn’t go to a technical school you didn’t have a skill to fall back on. When you look at the demographics, it’s just a fact that there are fewer people available to go into jobs than there used to be. Every blue collar-job sector struggles with the same issues.
Q: So what is the marine industry doing to take on that challenge?
A: We have a plan—and that’s more than most industries have. Now it’s up to every individual employer to think about what it can do differently and how it can partner with others to cultivate workers in their area. Employers need to participate in the community, so the community knows they are there. That’s why we have this plan. The marine trades have a lot to offer. Look how sexy boating is: just put a beautiful boat next to a big machine that punches out widgets. Compare offices: Do you want to be in a cubicle or out on the docks? We have the ability to attract young people. But we need to make sure we’re paying the wages to keep them, and we need to make sure we are training them.
Q: Didn’t you just get a grant that helps you get kids in Rhode Island interested in the industry at a pretty young age?
A: We just wrote a grant application to fund a community workforce pipeline that starts in the fourth grade and goes through high school graduation. It starts with a fourth-grade sailing program. There’s an after-school boatbuilding program, and in high school, there’s a career and tech program that goes throughout the four years. There’s a summer jobs program. We have a credit-recovery program in high school. We are trying hard to make a difference and be visible to the community. You have to think holistically. What are we doing to maintain and create more demand? Let’s grow the industry and help marinas and dealers who are aging out to transition the business to other family members or new owners. How can we share the information that some people know and have already proven as a best practice? I like to think big and implement the vision.
Q: Do you think diversifying the workforce will lead to a more diverse boating base? If so, what is RIMTA doing to enhance diversification?
A: We try to diversify our workforce. Our core audience is the industry. We act with their best interest at heart. So when we’re filling a workforce program, we’re focused on putting people into jobs. Sometimes that’s a female, sometimes it’s not. We do intentionally recruit from a diverse population to find people. We encourage women to apply; we work with re-entry nonprofit programs; we do a lot of work with high school students labeled as at-risk. We recruit from a diverse population, but when a person gets the job, it’s because he or she is the right person.
Q: You were named the chairperson of the National Marine Trades Council. What has that experience been like?
A: Between the workforce plan and the chairmanship at the NMTC, I am so honored. To know the people that have served before me and to be able to learn from them is very exciting. Again, I keep going back to the idea that we’re a unit. We’re a national industry. We can build this together. Being able to sit at the helm of the NMTC really gives me the opportunity to voice that more. I do believe a rising tide lifts all boats. If one succeeds, we all succeed.
Q: How do you stay so high-energy?
A: I don’t drink much coffee and I’ve cut out my afternoon Diet Coke. I’ve always been this way. When I asked people to describe me with one word, it’s energy. Thank God I have a strong team around me that balances me and keeps me in check. I am very excitable and I prefer to look at things with the glass half full.
Q: What are some initiatives that RIMTA has used that you think could work at the national level?
A: Currently, we have developed a pilot for a fiberglass vessel recycling program with Rhode Island Sea Grant, and we have funding from 11th Hour Racing. The goal is to develop environmentally sound ways to dispose of fiberglass hulls, by processing the hulls into alternative fuel and raw material for cement. The fiberglass and resin are incinerated, and the ash produced is a core component of the ingredients that makes cement. Once we have the findings from the pilot, this is a program that could be national.
Q: In addition to workforce, what do you see as the biggest challenge facing the marine industry at the national level?
A: It’s going to be connected to the environment. At RIMTA we are focused on programs that can help preserve our ocean environment. We have a shrinkwrap recycling program. We are looking forward to working with Rhode Island Sea Grant on revitalizing our Clean Marina Program. We’re also launching with Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management a zero-plastics marina program, with 10 different ways to reduce plastic in the marina environment.
Q: Do you consider the challenges for RIMTA the same as at the national level?
A: They’re one and the same. We’re a microcosm of the marine industry. It’s all the same. I’m always going to bring it back to the bigger picture. When we’re developing a program for RIMTA, we always think about replicability at the national level. If we find something that works really well, we want to share it.
Q: What are your goals for the marine industry in Rhode Island? What do you see for the future?
A: Our mission is to grow the industry through advocacy, education and promotion and to position Rhode Island as a worldwide leader. We’re innovators but we’re also opportunists at RIMTA. Our board is made up of entrepreneurs. We’re always trying to raise the bar and grow the industry. We are always looking for feedback from our industry to learn what they need. How do we create something that can serve them?
Q: What are biggest legislative challenges facing the marine industry in Rhode Island?
A: Legislation is not my strong suit. RIMTA’s legislative efforts are led by its Legislative Committee, which is very effective. Rhode Island has been able to keep sales tax off boats and services since 1993. We approach that as a challenge each year. Susan Zellers from Maryland is a great one to talk about legislation and so is Kathleen Burns from Connecticut and Melissa Danko from New Jersey; they know what they’re talking about when it comes to our industry and related legislative issues.
Q: Speaking of powerful women in the industry, you, Melissa Danko of New Jersey and Nicki Polan in Michigan are all successful women in what has often been described as a male-dominated industry. How important is it to you to show that women can make a difference in the marine industry?
A: I don’t think it’s important that we’re women making a difference. I think it’s important that people are making a difference. I just happen to be a woman. I’ve always worked in male-dominated industries and had no problem. I’m just inspired by people, and when you look at the room at an NMTC meeting, there are more women than men in there. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but to run an association you need to be able to multitask and switch gears and be able to talk to anyone—to state legislators, to parents, to the unemployed, to CEOs, to the frontline guys. You have to be able to communicate to broad populations.
Q: Rhode Island was a leader in terms of not taxing boats. Can you explain the history and have you seen fallout from other Northeastern states following suit?
A: We haven’t had a sales tax on boats since the early 1990s. Kathleen Burns got it down to 2.99 percent in Connecticut. I really believe that if every state in the Northeast had zero tax on boats, we would have a far better cruising community because boaters wouldn’t be worried about state borders.
Q: Recently, the Volvo Ocean race had a stopover in Rhode Island and the city of Newport is synonymous with the America’s Cup and with yacht racing. How important are events like this to the state’s marine industry?
A: Events like the Volvo Ocean Race draw international attention and give us an opportunity to showcase our industry. These events also give those in our business a chance to feel pride in what we do. For the Volvo this year, our industry got so excited. It was palpable. We’re still buzzing from it. When you went to the Race Village, everybody was wearing their logo gear because everybody was so proud. We had an industry party the day after the boats came in; we had 250 industry people show up on a Wednesday night to buy their own drinks and hang out together, because it was at the Volvo.
Q: Do you find it somewhat ironic that with its long sailing history, the state is also home to the high-performance manufacturer Outerlimits?
A: It’s cool that they’re here. When we meet with young people we’ll show them pictures of Outerlimits boats and they think they are so cool. We work with them with one of our training programs.
Q: Outerlimits and many sailboat manufacturers are on the leading edge when it comes to high-tech construction. How cool is it to have them in your little state?
A: It’s so easy to be proud to promote the marine trades and the composite industry in Rhode Island. We do super cool stuff in this state. We hosted 22 service reps, who are federal employees that work with other countries as a U.S. representative for import and export opportunities. We did a training for them on the marine industry and composites. Both our innovation and our rich history: these are the tools we have to work with in Rhode Island. We have what it takes to make successful things happen in the marine industry.
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue.