Times are Changing - Developing Young Craftsmen

Tom Motta doing his thing.JPG

There has been a shortage of skilled workers in our country for years, and with 10,000 Baby Boomers reportedly retiring every day, the shortage is only getting worse. But thankfully, efforts to reverse this trend are happening and positive results will surely follow.

An article in the current Sounding Trade Only details recent efforts to develop and support apprenticeship programs in the marine industry, providing it with skilled mechanics, technicians, and fiberglass and wood workers. And it is about time. For too many years, every youth was expected to get a college degree, even when their interests and abilities might have been better utilized elsewhere.

Susan Zeller, a great lady I worked with on the Safety at Sea program at the U.S. Naval Academy, is the executive director of the Marine Trades Association of Maryland. She was interviewed for the article, and shared her thoughts as to why everyone assumes a respectable career required a college degree.

“It’s rare to find a mom and dad who embrace that kid who wants to work with his or her hands,” she said. “Parents continue to push kids towards a four-year degree. I still think that is our No. 1 problem.”

Thankfully, this trend is changing, and President Trump is all over it. Last fall, members of the American Boat Builders & Repairers Association (ABBRA) met with senior officials at the White House to discuss this situation, along with members of the commerce and labor departments. President Trump is keen to expand job training and apprenticeship programs in all industries, including the marine industry. Community colleges, once the vocational training hubs of our country, are returning to their roots. State and federal aid is helping foot the bill.

 Repairing gelcoat properly is a skill beyond the abilities of most boat owners, and people who can do it well are considered skilled artists. 

Repairing gelcoat properly is a skill beyond the abilities of most boat owners, and people who can do it well are considered skilled artists. 

It is a “cultural rebuild” to bring a skilled labor force back in style, which to me seems perfect. Whenever I visited a European boat builder, I saw craftsmen creating yachts with a pride of workmanship and involvement that has been mostly missing in this country. Instead of minimum wage workers doing the gritty job of laying fiberglass, I saw highly skilled craftsmen who proudly specialize in these skills. The Netherlands, for example, has some fabulous boat builders. Walking through these facilities, I would see senior craftsmen teaching young apprentices how to do it right in an almost surgically clean environment. It was inspiring, whether it was an electrical installation or crafting teak joinerwork that would go into a yacht interior. Such skills should not be lost.

Apparently, the days of requiring every young man and woman to get a college degree and follow in their parents’ corporate footsteps may be coming to an end. It is long overdue, in my opinion, and I applaud our country’s leadership for recognizing this need and addressing a high level view of shrinking skilled labor. Even the states are contributing. New Jersey, for instance, will provide 50 percent of an apprentice’s salary for six months.

Some local boat shows, such as the New York and New England boat shows, now host career days to give young people a look at career alternatives. And it seems to be working, as more boatyards and boat builders have technicians with college degrees but instead choose to work with their minds and hands, away from a desk.

The recreational marine industry, with partnerships from major corporate titans, is actively working to attract young people who love working with their hands and want to help build or repair boats, engines, and systems for the rest of us. It seems very down to earth, and complements our growing awareness of cleaner, greener, more efficient. I like that.

I am friends with a boat builder who was all set to go to Yale Law School, but got a summer job working for a boat builder in Maine. Something resonated with him during that summer, and he subsequently filed for an extension to put off law school for the next semester to continue working at the boatyard. After several extensions, his direction was clear, and he never set foot on the Yale campus. Everyone should be so lucky to have such a clear path.

I fully support these apprenticeship programs, and building a workforce of skilled workers and creaftsmen across all industries. I hope such apprenticeship programs flourish. The move is in line with a greater respect and consciousness of the world and our role in it.

Once again, it seems that to move forward, we need to look back at the past, at how things were done, hands on and fully engaged.