Careers a focus at Providence show

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In this struggling economy, the marine industry seeks to groom more young people into trades people

Attracting young people to the marine industry was the focus of a roundtable discussion at the 16th annual Providence Boat Show, which took place at the Rhode Island Convention Center Jan. 29 through Feb. 1.

The initiative, called Boats Work for Rhode Island, featured its own pavilion at the show with information about marine career opportunities in the state.

“There are resources available in Rhode Island, and employers need to take advantage of this slowdown we are experiencing and get into the mindset of young people,” says Steven Kitchin, vice president of corporate education and training at the New England Institute of Technology. Kitchin was one of the guest speakers at the roundtable. “We need to start focusing on how to attract young people to the industry, because that’s where our future lies.”

A recent study by the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association showed there were more than 6,600 total jobs in the boating industry paying nearly $260 million with an average salary of $39,400. The study also found that nearly 10 percent of all private employers in the state were involved in the boating industry.

“We are in a perfect storm, but it will not last forever,” Kitchin says of the current economic conditions. “This is the time to make investments in people so they have the skills when things get better to take advantage of the opportunities.”

This industry also offers workers a future, says Peter Van Lancker, president of Hunt Yachts. “Someone who comes in as a technician can end up running the place — they don’t have to be a technician for life.”

Rhode Island Marine Trades Association is anticipating an increase of jobs in the marine field during the next four years, says Andy Tyska, president of Bristol Marine and RIMTA.

The Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation is working with local high schools to make sure guidance counselors add marine trades to the list of career choices for students, says Paul Harden, manager of business and work force development.

“Fifteen to 20 percent of the workforce [in the marine industry] is an older generation, and this is physically demanding work,” says Harden. “It’s not a choice. We have to bring the younger people into this industry.”

A good example is 19-year-old Justin Smith, who is working part-time for the Brewer Yacht Yard chain while attending the Maritime Institute in Fairhaven, Mass.

“He does a little bit of everything, from yard help to launching boats,” says Bruce Chappell, manager at Brewer Pilots Point Marina in Westbrook, Conn. Smith is part of Brewer’s dedication to helping young people get their foot in the door in marine careers, says Chappell. “He’s been with us since last fall and he shows great promise.”

Overall, the Providence Boat Show saw about a 10-percent increase in attendance over the typical turnout of 20,000, according to show director Nancy Piffard. This is a recovery from last year’s drop of 20 percent.

“Last year our dates were around Jan. 3, which was so close to New Year’s,” says Piffard, who also directs the Newport spring and international shows. “The dates were so much better this year — a positive for us and for our exhibitors.”

The show featured 157 exhibitors, including Bassett Boat Co., which reported good sales numbers.

“We estimate we’ve sold close to 20 boats between the Providence and the Hartford shows,” says Diane Bassett Zable, president of Bassett Boat Company. “We are very encouraged. The consumer is being reminded to go out and enjoy life again.”

For information on the Boats Work initiative, visit www.boatsworkri.com.

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.