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New Md. marine trades school opens

The Maryland school plans to offer DIY courses for boat owners, too


The Maryland school plans to offer DIY courses for boat owners, too

Nine men — from a baggy-jeans youth to a 73-year-old, gray-bearded waterman — are gathered in an empty outlet mall storefront on Kent Island, Md., this raw evening in late winter, ready to learn about installing electrical circuits on your boat. Although most already do that sort of work, the chance to do it better is the opportunity offered by the fledgling Chesapeake Marine Trades Career School.

The school, a project of a charitable non-profit corporation, is gearing up to become a comprehensive trade school for the marine industry. Its Kent Island class that began in February is a trial run, one that the school needs to win Maryland State certification for its courses, according to school officials.

But if its plans are fulfilled, the school will one day offer four different types of training, across the spectrum of skills involved in the marine industry, according to Michael Thielke, one of its founders.

• A residential, full-time one-year program for students new to the industry, including high school students and adults making a career change.

• Advanced courses for veterans of the industry who, like the nine current students, want to “enhance their skill level.”

• Manufacturer courses for working on that builder’s specific products “in order to teach next year’s technology to people from their dealers and distributorships,” and,

• General public/boat owner courses. One to two-day sessions to teach do-it-yourself boat maintenance and repair.

“We’re thinking of trying to put together some training rendezvous,” Thielke says. The idea would be to take over a marina in a desirable location — St. Michaels, Annapolis or Georgetown, Md., for example, he says. “A weekend of training with lunch, dinner and social outlets. It gives people another excuse to use their boat.”

These rendezvous, still in the planning stage for summer 2005, would provide what Thielke euphemistically calls “spouse activities” such as shopping, house tours and “courses on how to redo the inside of your boat.”

Chesapeake Marine Trades Career School is the brainchild of Thielke and Guy Beckley, an ex-Navy instructor who, upon retirement from the military, became a tugboat captain on the Chesapeake. They combined their efforts in 2003 and have been developing their plan since then. They have acquired a former oyster-shucking house in Rock Hall which will become their residential facility, Thielke says.

Thielke, who was executive director of the successful Schooner Sultana project in his hometown, Chestertown, says he met Beckley after he did a mass mailing in Kent County looking for anyone interested in starting a marine trade school. Beckley was moving to Kent County and had the idea of starting a school teaching tugboat mechanics. A real estate agent who had seen the mailing brought the two men together.

“It’s a match made in heaven,” Thielke says. “Guy was in charge of all the hovercraft training for the Navy.”

Thielke says there is a need for jobs in Kent County and a need by Chesapeake marinas for skilled workers.

“People have the perception that there is no need for economic development” in the county, Thielke says. He called the county a “real have or have-not county. A lot of really wealthy people who reside or have their boats in the county. The reality is that Kent County is just this side of what the state considers an indigent county.”

At the same time, Thielke says, marina operators have a history of not investing in training their employees.

“I recognize what it is to work on tight margins,” says Thielke who, before moving from Washington to the Eastern Shore, was involved as an entrepreneur in what he calls international trade. “But they invest in other things. It’s a question of priority. Either skilled labor is important or it’s not. If it is important, it needs to work its way up into the top five priorities.”

“I think the bodies are there to fill the [marina] jobs currently, if they were better trained,” Thielke says. But many current marina employees are inadequate, he says. “There are job openings that are unfilled. Marinas are short on help because they don’t pay. They don’t pay [high wages because the job candidates] are not trained.”

All but one of the students in the Kent Island class this March evening have been sent by their employers. Carl Morrissey, 52, of Queenstown, works for Hinckley Yacht Services in Oxford where he works on electronics and electrical troubleshooting. With 15 years in the marine industry, off and on, Morrissey is experienced, but he says he is learning in this class about basic marine electrical work.

“It’s good for me because I’ve been in and out of the business,” Morrissey says. He finds the fact that the class involves hands-on instruction particularly helpful. “We’re not just memorizing facts.”

This class is being taught by Joe Holt, owner of Holt Marine Systems, a local business. Holt worked on aircraft for 18 years before switching to boats.

“I was licensed to rewire 747s,” he says. He found the move to marine electrical work easy, he says. His teaching method is relaxed, authoritative. “I was not destined to be a four-year liberal arts student,” he explains. Rather, he went to trade schools himself, and supports Thielke’s and Beckley’s effort. He says he hopes he can hire some graduates for his business.

Frank Rehill, 73, a part-time waterman on Tilghman Island who began wiring workboats four years ago because there was no one else on the island to do it, paid for his own $795 tuition to this course. “I’m only experienced to mostly workboats,” Rehill says. “Joe is a good hands-on instructor, and you can always learn something.”

Two employees from nearby Warehouse Creek Yacht Sales have been sent to this class by their employer, who is negotiating for Chesapeake Marine Trades Career School to become a tenant in the dealer’s new Kent Island facility. “I’ve been in the business here 25 years,” says Merv Blouse, 51, who makes new boats ready for delivery, including installation of electrical systems. “I’ve learned things here I didn’t learn in 25 years,” he says.

Thielke and Beckley are relying on that kind of testimonial, hoping it will encourage marina owners to invest in the school’s success.

“The school can only survive with the financial support of the marinas and boatyards that strive to benefit from our program,” Thielke says.