Help Wanted

Rhode Island Marine Industry Tackles Skills Gap

Alison Riendeau is one of the Rhode Island marine trades industry’s recent recruits thanks to a mid-career apprenticeship at Bristol Marine. Photo © Jesse Burke

by Elaine Lembo

In a place with nearly 400 miles of coastline, a place whose nickname is the Ocean State, you’d think filling jobs in the marine trades industry would be a snap. Think again.

In Rhode Island in 2012, the marine trades cluster—from boatyards to manufacturers—saw $1.5 billion in sales and provided 7,100 jobs, according to the state Department of Labor and Training. By 2020, it’s predicted that the state’s marine employers will need to fill more than 1,880 jobs, or 26 percent of the existing labor force.

Where those workers will come from, as fewer high school students choose to pursue employment in skilled trades, is a problem that a loosely organized group from Rhode Island’s marine and educational sectors is committed to solving.

A 2015 survey found that 32 percent of U.S. employers responding reported difficulty filling jobs, largely in skilled trades, due to lack of available talent.

“The gap is universal across trades,” despite the potential for high wages, says Ed Sherman, vice president and education director for the American Boat and Yacht Council, the national standards developer for recreational boating. “This is the first generation with access to everything electronic since birth. For most of these millennials, the extent that they’ve worked with their hands is their thumbs. That’s the bottom line.”

Wendy Mackie, Rhode Island Marine Trades Association (RIMTA) chief executive officer, says that when she started out in the marine industry, trying to recruit young people, many of them didn’t even know what she was talking about. She would ask them: “‘So who in here has ever considered a job in the marine trades?’” Someone would inevitably respond: “‘I don’t want to join the military!’”

Today, RIMTA offers a variety of high school and young adult apprenticeship programs that boast a high job placement rate for entry-level workers who range from teenagers to adults making career shifts.

Apprentices, Mackie says, are immersed in the environment and culture they will be working in and are trained by industry experts at the New England Institute of Technology (NEIT), the International Yacht Restoration School (IYRS), Bristol Marine, Pirate’s Cove, or New England Boatworks, to name a few. “Whether it’s shrink wrapping, painting, forklift driving, sail making, or vacuum infusion, the context in which all of this is delivered is through the employer.”

The value of exposure to on-site experiences can’t be overestimated, she adds. “A guy who works in a boatyard doesn’t do just one thing. It’s one of those career paths you need to see to understand, or to just do to understand.”

In addition to working with RIMTA, many marine trades employers and organizations also conduct their own recruitment efforts and programs to raise visibility about potential jobs with student candidates. IYRS, for example, recently won a $75,000 state grant to develop a traveling lab equipped with high-tech tools that will visit high schools and prisons, providing short-term, hands-on courses and building awareness about careers in 21st-century manufacturing.

Part of that recruitment effort involves changing perceptions of what employment in a skilled trade entails and offers. No one appreciates this better than Steve Kitchin, vice president of the NEIT. Among its offerings is an associate degree in marine technology, with a curriculum that, like many, has seen extensive overhaul in its 40 years of existence, thanks to input from industry groups, trade associations, and employers.

“We’ve been sending a message to young people for 50 to 60 years about the best way to pursue their future,” Kitchin says. “What got lost in the messaging about becoming a lawyer, nurse, doctor, accountant, or writer are the realities of the labor market. The trade careers of auto technician, heating technician, refrigeration technician require sophisticated levels of knowledge, too. I beg anyone to look under the hood of his car and say sophisticated knowledge isn’t required. What’s happened in auto has happened to marine. It requires technical knowledge that you’re just not going to get from being a backyard mechanic.”

And, he says, “Young people aren’t getting access to the info they need to make informed decisions. The marine technology world is competing against very high messaging and is a small industry with small employers. They are not GM, Fidelity, Chrysler, United Health. And I don’t know what marina you frequent, but if it’s like the ones I know in Narragansett Bay, they are well hidden from the general populace. If you don’t take a side street and go all the way to the end you wouldn’t see these. You’ve got no experience and no message about these great careers.”

IYRS offers courses in composites technology as well as in wooden boatbuilding and restoration. Photo © Jesse Burke

To compensate, NEIT reaches out to the state’s high schools, paying to transport students and feed them lunch onsite. “We encourage tours of all of our programs so high school kids get a real sense of what goes on here,” he says. “We’re on the journey and about halfway there. Between the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, industry, RIMTA and others, the partners are coming together and you can see the beginnings of a real pipeline for employers.

“As for the smaller employers who dominate the marine trades, they need to be part of the solution and spread the message that good jobs with good careers, good lifestyles, good compensation are available. It’s a lot better than it was five years ago. And it will be much better five years from now.”

An afternoon drive on a hot summer day to Goetz Composites, situated alongside dozens of other companies at the industrial park outside of historic Bristol village, is like a trip to a career fair. Help-wanted banners dot some of the lawns outside the white, rectangular buildings and plant facilities that stretch on for blocks. Manufacturing specialties here include aerospace, wind energy, transportation, marine, automotive, construction, and pipe and
tank, among others.

“The area we’ve chosen to focus on is composites, in terms of hull construction and structure, and integration of these systems,” says Chase Hogoboom, Goetz president. “As a result of the complexity of these various components that go into a boat, the specialized skill for the composites technician is something that needs to be developed.”

Goetz, a longtime RIMTA partner, participates in the apprenticeship program because it’s affected by labor shortages.

“If you want to hire a nurse you just put in an ad for a nurse,” explains Peggy Clay, Goetz human resources coordinator. “You can’t really place an ad for a composites technician and get that same caliber. There are almost no people who can just walk in the door and start doing the job of composites technician.”

Hogoboom echoes the perspective of Steve Kitchin about this unique dilemma. “Traditionally, boat builders were jacks of all trades,” he says. “The industry has become much more specialized. Systems have become much more complicated and sophisticated. Electrical controls, propulsion systems—all have evolved and become extremely complex and require their own expertise.

Not all of the 20 technicians on the floor, who range in age from 20 to 65, come from a marine background or straight out of high school.

“Not all of them are boaters or know about boats,” adds Hogoboom. He says the RIMTA apprenticeship program “gives us an opportunity to expose candidates to a possible career and get them excited.” When those candidates are hired, “we experience a lower turnover rate. They’ve already been exposed to the type of work they’re going to be doing, and although they don’t have experience … they’re more prepared mentally and emotionally.”

One example is Alison Riendeau, who works at Rhode Island-based Bristol Marine’s branch in Somerset, Massachusetts, along the Taunton River.

Riendeau, a single mother of two, was born and raised in Barrington and had worked as an English tutor, a jujitsu instructor, and in tax sales of foreclosed houses.

In a career quandary, she was seeing a counselor. “I’m thinking,” she says on a break during this reporter’s visit to the Bristol Marine plant, “I’m 35, sort of in the middle of my career. Do I go back to college? By chance I heard about [the program]. It was immensely appealing because of its hands-on nature. I’m not afraid to get dirty.

“[It] gave us an idea of what we want, and we could dabble in things, whether it was shrink wrapping, welding, driving a forklift,” she says. “Bristol Marine was in my top three. I job-shadowed for a week and was hired before I was done.”

“I like varnish, learning the formulas, tinkering. I like doing repairs and making something out of nothing. I’m definitely learning a little more every day. It takes patience on the part of my bosses and they’re willing to teach me,” she says, “The things I could do at the end of the program I never before thought I could do.”

Her children, now 10 and 15, have given her the thumbs-up on the new gig, and at the company Christmas party at DeWolfe Tavern, like other new employees, she was given a street sign, “Riendeau Way,” which hangs above her workstation in the carpentry department.

That sense of belonging is part of what Riendeau likes about her new career.

“We get some incredible boats in here,” she says. “I get to do different stuff every day. These guys are like my family. I also think the best part is coming to work every day and actually liking it. It’s an excellent balance of good work and good laughs.”

Before she goes back to work, she shares a few more insights gained in the last year.

“If you show up, are on time, and have a good attitude, your chance of succeeding is great,” she says. “Attitude is 90 percent of it. Skills can always be taught and learned. If someone is enthusiastic, the rest can be taught.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*