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Blue-collar bind

Industry ramps up job-filling efforts after dealer survey shows skilled labor shortage is far wider than thought
Propellers are forged at Mercury Marine’s molten metal plant.

Propellers are forged at Mercury Marine’s molten metal plant.

Across the country, boat dealerships of all sizes are facing a similar challenge. Whether they’re in a seasonal state or one with year-round boating, regardless of whether they’re in a region slow to emerge from the Great Recession or one that is thriving, these marine industry players are struggling with the same thing — worker shortages.

Though some manufacturers say they also need skilled workers, widespread pain seems to be felt on the dealership side. “We’ve got a huge problem,” says Matt Gruhn, president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, which surveyed dealer members on the issue with overwhelming results. “The No. 1 issue we have is related to vocational education and the shortage of qualified job seekers. It’s the No. 1 legislative issue we’ve been tasked with for the year, and we’ve gone out in a big way to start working on these issues.”

The survey drew 517 responses — more than triple the number that is typical for an MRAA survey. It brought feedback from 49 of 50 states and Canada. Comments came from freshwater and saltwater markets, various sizes of dealerships and all types of locations, including metropolitan areas, suburbs, small towns and resorts. It’s the first data regarding the industry’s work force shortage, and it’s bleak, says Gruhn.

“The responses paint a pretty negative picture of what’s going on across the board,” he says. The survey shows that the average dealership has 15.3 full-time employees and 2.1 part-time workers. On average, respondents said they had budgeted for 3.3 full-time positions that remain unfilled, he says.

Of the unfilled positions in dealerships, 59 percent are in the service department, Gruhn says. Almost 90 percent of the unfilled service department positions were technician jobs.

“Engine repair and repower was noted as the most difficult skill to find among potential employees,” he says. “More than 74 percent of respondents said they struggle to find workers with qualified skills when it comes to repair and repower, and 66 percent found skills deficiencies in technical knowledge in employees they’ve already hired.”

More than 51 percent hired someone with marine industry experience, “which tells me we’re just stealing employees from each other,” Gruhn says. Forty-four percent of dealers hired someone from a technical school, but suggested that 96 percent of them are either poorly or only partially prepared.

Prospective employees attend the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association’s annual Career Day.

Prospective employees attend the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association’s annual Career Day.

Tapping federal training funds

The shortages may not have been measured before now, but many people certainly have felt them, including Wendy Mackie, director of the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association. Even in a state that had record unemployment during the recession, the state’s dealerships and boatyards were unable to find the workers they needed to do the work that needed doing.

“The skills gap is the same across the country,” Mackie says, although she points out that it varies, based on geography. “The boomers are aging out and leaving huge holes in the work force, so those craftsmen that have the knowledge are no longer there. There’s always a shortage of mechanics, and it’s partly because of that critical time that boat sales went down and used-boat sales went up, so people were fixing their boats versus turning them over.”

Rhode Island has been proactive about the problem, in part because the composites and boating industries are big economic contributors in the small state. That state has too many initiatives to list, but one that has been tweaked and refined and has seen huge success rates stands out.

“We created a preapprenticeship training program that’s seven weeks long,” says Mackie. The key is to offer as much diverse training as possible, from working in a mom-and-pop building shop to a marina or boatyard and to a more corporate venue, such as the East Coast’s Brewer Yacht Yard chain.

The Rhode Island program bases its training subjects on what local businesses are seeking. “It can be all over the map, from sailmaking to electrical systems or plumbing, to engine repair to boatbuilding composites,” says Mackie. “We work a lot with the composites industry here because part of that is boatbuilders, but they are also diversifying their revenue stream. It could be forklift driving, welding repair — we are giving them broad-brush exposure. So that could entail four to eight hours of shrink-wrapping. Will they need further training? Yes, but it’s equipping them with expectations and understanding of tools, parts of the boat, regulations and safety.”

The program is designed so RIMTA does not provide the training; rather, the association designs programs so employers can tap into additional federal funds that are available through on-the-job training grants. That offsets 50 percent of training on the job for six months.

Manufacturers and dealers are feeling the effects of the skilled worker shortage.

Manufacturers and dealers are feeling the effects of the skilled worker shortage.

South Florida a leader

One of the most vigorous responses to the skilled labor shortage is taking place in boat-centric Fort Lauderdale, where preparation for marine careers begins as early as the middle-school level.

“A Bright Future for Jobs” is the theme of the third annual Marine Industry Day, which will take place Saturday, June 18, from noon to 6 p.m. It’s a free “family-friendly” celebration at Esplanade Park in downtown Fort Lauderdale, designed to raise awareness of the marine industry’s importance to the region. South Florida boat businesses employ 136,000 people and pump $11.5 billion a year into the regional economy.

Last year’s event attracted 1,500 people. It is organized and sponsored by the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, with support from Riverwalk Fort Lauderdale, the Florida Yacht Brokers Association, the U.S. Superyacht Association, the National Marine Manufacturers Association and Young Professionals in Yachting.

The second annual Marine Industry Job Fair during last fall’s Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show attracted more than 400 people; 25 employers posted more than 400 job openings. The job fair, run by the MIASF in conjunction with CareerSource Florida and Soundings Trade Only, is on tap again at this year’s show, which runs Nov. 3-7.

“MIASF is actively working to both promote and expand marine education opportunities in South Florida,” says Sharon Abramson, director of public relations and marketing. “We support the marine magnet programs at New River Middle School and South Broward High School, which prepare students for careers in the marine industry, as well as programs like the marine service tech program at McFatter Technical College and the marine engineering program at Broward College.”

Abramson says MIASF also is working with local educational institutions and marine businesses to develop an internship program.

This summer MIASF will partner with the Marine Industry Cares Foundation to offer a two-week Marine Immersion Summer Camp. The camp gives students the chance to interact with local marine industry professionals and ask questions about specific companies and fields.

Training is part of a work force development project operated by the Marine Trades Association of Maryland.

Training is part of a work force development project operated by the Marine Trades Association of Maryland.

Multiple career path options

In Rhode Island the preapprenticeship training is so diverse that it does not confine students to the marine industry, Mackie says. “If we think about the economy and how it fluctuates, and how in 2008 and 2009 so many people were laid off or their jobs were eliminated — one of the things we try to do in preapprenticeship training is make sure our training graduates are prepared for as many pathways as possible. They might learn basic boatyard work but also paint and varnish skills, which can be applied in construction, and carpentry skills, which can be applied in construction, or composites, which can be applied to auto body [work] or boatbuilding. They will get forklift training, CNC machine training, some welding experience.”

Graduates have been placed in plumbing, electronics and other fields, she says, and that is a selling point for parents who might be skeptical of their teenagers forgoing college to enter a trade.

“The motivation is for people to be an independent person and to be employable,” Mackie says. “Of course, I want them to work in the marine industry, but if things don’t work out or the economy tanks, we’d be doing an injustice if we didn’t help them become more marketable in more things.”


The Rhode Island program has a high placement rate. The preapprentices start out making about $30,000 a year, or $13 to $15 an hour for three to six months. They aren’t tracked after that, but after a decade of work the average would be about $52,000 or more, Mackie says.

RIMTA now has done six cycles of the preapprentice training and learned during the process, she says. For the entire program, there have been 56 students, a 100 percent graduation rate, a 91 percent placement rate, a 70 percent retention rate after six months and a 42 percent retention rate after one year.

But just looking at the last three cycles, during which 27 people graduated, there was a 100 percent graduation rate, a 96 percent placement rate, a 95 percent retention rate at six months and an 89 percent retention rate after a year.

“We learned how to recruit better,” Mackie says. “The first time we did this, we took in a lot of younger people who had just graduated from high school. What we learned is they’re just not ready for the demands of a 40-hour workweek. So we changed our recruitment and assessment techniques a little to accommodate for that.”

A selling point in Maine for the industry has been that marine industry jobs aren’t at risk of moving offshore, says Maine Marine Trades Association director Susan Swanton. Maine received $15 million in federal funds a few years ago, which enabled the state to lay some groundwork around incumbent workers and raise the skills of current workers. Now Swanton is focused on working with career counselors and tech training to attract those entry-level employees.

“There are still kids out there who really want to work with their hands,” Swanton says. “And if you’re going to fix something that is owned by someone locally, those jobs can’t really be offshored,” she points out. “There’s a little bit of security there. Fortunately we do have some cachet here in Maine around boatbuilding.”

Cultural stigma

Despite that cachet, Maine still wrestles with a cultural stigma around service and technician work. In Maryland that stigma may be even more pronounced, says Susan Zellers, director of the Marine Trades Association of Maryland.

“It’s different in every state, yet I think the global issue is the need to rebrand trade jobs in general and bring the lawyer to the same dinner table as the mechanic and the boat repair person,” Zellers says. “It’s kind of a global branding issue of, how do we make the trades OK? How do we make them a destination, instead of ‘I got caught smoking pot, now I gotta go to this class?’ Some kids are naturally more mechanically inclined, but often it’s driven more by socioeconomics. They’re going to schools where not everybody gets sent to college. For me, it’s a bigger conundrum than just marine trades.”

On one end, Zellers says she tries to rebrand the marine industry to legislators, for example, as one made up of small businesses — making the argument that tax breaks aren’t to benefit the wealthy but to keep sales in Maryland. On the other hand, the industry also is trying to rebrand and find people to work with their hands. “When will schools start to test for that aptitude, rather than just algebra?” she asks.

In a recent session the association tried to assess how some industries are branding themselves as more glamorous despite being hands-on and sometimes dirty. “We decided the people doing landscaping were somehow making it work a little bit better,” Zellers says. is a website dedicated totally to career possibilities in landscaping, she points out. That site talks about the math and analytical skills needed in the field — speaking to parents who want certain types of jobs for their children — environmental awareness, creativity, problem-solving and design skills, for example.

It also touts four major reasons to choose such careers: “jobs galore” being No. 1. Making a difference, high earning potential and the ability to enter the field with a diploma, a college degree or on-the-job training also were listed. These are extremely similar to the marine trades jobs, Zellers says.

Mackie also runs into parents who stigmatize blue-collar jobs. “They want their kids to go to college, so they sort of [bypass] those technical jobs,” Mackie says. “When we recruit for our programs, we have to recruit the right people. We’re very upfront about this being the dirtiest job you’ll ever love. We are very clear about the expectations of the program and training. The people we’re attracting are folks who are hands-on learners. There is crossover from construction, or delivery guys, or electrical workers, for example. We have to set clear expectations. We operate on grant funding, so if we train a bunch of people who don’t land in jobs, we’re going to lose funding.”


In Maine, Swanton says two of her board members have told her they wished they had known about these jobs when they were making career choices. One, who has a four-year degree and has spent much of his life in the art world, told her, “If there had been a program like this when I was a kid, I probably would’ve taken a very different path.”

Most companies in Maine are diversified — doing building, custom finishing, service, storage, repair and maintenance, refits and restorations — which has allowed companies, as well as jobs, to survive through the most recent recession, “certainly the worst I’ve seen in my career,” Swanton says.

When people do learn about marine industry jobs, they tend to worry that the jobs are too cyclical. But there’s only about a 5 percent difference between the height of the season in the summer months and the winter months in terms of employment, Swanton says.

That summer bump tends to come from extra part-time help on the docks or part-time workers hired to help prepare boats for launch, for example. “Most of our jobs tend to be year-round,” Swanton says. “If people are not out using their boats, that’s when we’re fixing them, or building new stuff, or doing upgrades. People have the potential to do really well in this industry.

“People don’t know the jobs exist, and as with any industry that is making things or fixing things, and not just selling things or doctoring or lawyering — those bigger kinds of careers that do require a lot of education in a formal setting — I think people often think these kinds of jobs we have are dirty and dangerous and don’t pay well,” she adds. “I can tell you they used to be really dirty because I worked them. And if I think about it, there were things that were dangerous because we didn’t understand how to do them safely. But now we do, and we do pay well.”

Higher education

Maine has the good fortune of being home to the Landing School, which offers degrees in yacht design, wooden boatbuilding, composite boatbuilding and marine systems. “Their mission really is to turn out people who are ready to go to work,” Swanton says. Not all move to marine industry careers. Two yacht design graduates are now designing medical equipment, and a graduate from the wooden boatbuilding program is a master designer of spiral staircases.

The school offers boatbuilding, design and systems instruction all in one building, says Swanton. “You could also turn that second year into a degree year, so the school offers applied technology associates for two-year students who add some general-education classes.”

The Landing School also has an articulation agreement with Southampton Solent University in the United Kingdom and Southern New Hampshire University. “We’re so insanely lucky that school is here,” Swanton says.

But most states do not have that type of higher education available. In Rhode Island RIMTA has partnered to implement high school career technician programs. The group is working with ABYC to develop a high school credential program. “We’re creating credentials because now none exist in the marine trade industry,” Mackie says. The classes would enable students to graduate with some credentials, and offer articulation with apprenticeships.

“Parents want to send kids to college, but if we want to get those kids who are more hands-on, we have to make sure the programming is attractive to parents,” Mackie says. “They have to feel like kids are getting a solid education with a future — if a parent is able to say, if you take this class, you’re going to get real opportunities, you’re leaving with credentials, and a post-secondary track already built in. As an industry, if we can help support and place those graduates with articulation to an apprenticeship, there’s some backing there. So parents can feel good about kids being on the track to success.”

Rhode Island also enjoys the fortune of having higher education via the IYRS School of Technology and Trades. The school offers programs including composites technology, boatbuilding and restoration, and systems. The ability to translate apprenticeships into curriculum credit, and provide a springboard for students who wish to continue their education, is also a crucial piece in showing students and parents that future opportunities for growth exist, Mackie says.

Tuition, debt, stagnant wages

That becomes potentially an easier sell as students wrestle with more student debt — on average for decades — and have a harder time breaking into or elevating in more traditional careers, Swanton speculates. When you factor in what people pay in interest, along with job insecurity, the hope of making slightly more per year might not pay in the long run. “When I went to college, I paid in cash,” she says. “Today people are carrying that debt because it just costs so much, and they’re not making enough to pay it off any more quickly.”

College does not seem to translate today to what it once did — job security and the promise of a middle-class existence — and meanwhile there are many well-paid trade positions that are in high demand, Swanton points out, such as plumbers, electricians, contractors. But people are hesitant to encourage such trades for their children.

“I guess I kind of trace it back to the GI Bill,” says Maryland’s Zellers. “After World War II the government sent people to college, and they became accountants or lawyers and doctors. It was dirt cheap, and state schools accepted everyone. In a perfect world I think we would figure out how to direct our kids into what their strengths are and let them be happy in that, and give them support and not have such big class differences between people who work with their hands and people who don’t.”

But perhaps that is poised to change as the middle class, though still largely highly educated, continues to shrink. “This is still one of those industries where you can literally work your way up to the top without having to spend four years in school first,” Swanton says.

Climate right for rebranding

“The thing that after all these years makes me really proud is, even among companies that compete every day for the same customer, the same dollar, when push comes to shove there’s going to be a hand out,” Swanton says. “There’s an awareness that if more of us succeed, there’s more opportunity for more to succeed better.

“I really think part of the problem is that as a society we’ve said for so long now that the only pathway to success is through a four-year degree, and yet I know that’s not true because I’ve lived something very different, as has my husband,” Swanton says. “We just don’t let kids know there are opportunities out there for them in this industry and a lot of other industries. The other part of the awareness paradigm is that parents don’t know and educators don’t know. So I think it’s incumbent on our industry to make all those people know.”

Gruhn agrees that the industry should do a better job of conveying itself to the broader public. “I don’t think we do a good job of marketing ourselves as a career opportunity,” he says. “I think about the great people in this industry and the amount of time invested; it’s because they’re passionate and it’s such a great industry for us to be a part of and contribute to. Why wouldn’t other people want to be part of that? We’re just not telling our story. We’re not bringing people in by telling them what a great career they can have in our industry.”

“There are a lot of places where we need to be making some inroads,” Swanton says. “We have a lot of people in this industry who have degrees in fine art, which doesn’t immediately make sense to everyone. But I will ask them, ‘Have you looked at a really well-crafted boat?’ Of course, it makes sense. They are art.

“We really need to get strong on that front,” Swanton adds. “With millennials having a different attitude on life and work, with the federal government putting a new sort of focus on things like apprenticeship and on industry-recognized credentials, rather than just the traditional four-year degree, now is the time.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue.



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