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R.I. needs skilled marine workers

Industry is counting on training programs to attract the young and the underemployed

Business is booming but some in Rhode Island’s marine industry are worried they won’t have enough workers to keep pace. Longtime employees are retiring and the industry isn’t attracting enough newcomers.

“There’s absolutely a need for skilled work force,” says Andy Tyska, owner of Bristol Marine in Bristol. “The labor market is tough.”

Tyska says he’ll hire anyone with “a willingness to work and learn.” But people with at least basic training would be welcomed.

Andy Dzykewicz, an account manager with the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, says the agency recognizes the need for marine training programs. “Some builders are turning [business] away because they can’t handle it,” says Dzykewicz.

Efforts are under way. In addition to schools like the New England Institute of Technology in Warwick, which offers an associate’s degree in marine trades, the Ocean State now offers several training and educational programs. “We’re really going great guns,” says Dzykewicz.

In the eastern end of the state, J. Alan Crisman noticed a large number of underemployed adults — unskilled people who are working for little more than minimum wage in stores or fast food restaurants. Crisman is executivedirector of the Mount Hope Enterprise Zone, a job creation program fostered by the state and located in Bristol and Warren.

Crisman also heard from area boatbuilders that there was a lack of workers.

“I started hearing the same song,” says Crisman. “Most are saying we’re growing, sales are going up, we want to hire new people.”

Crisman held an organizational meeting to gauge interest in a boatbuilding training program. It seemed an ideal solution to both problems but he says he was stunned at the response. Ocean State boatbuilders were not only interested in the program, many volunteered to help, says Crisman. As a result, he is developing a 10- to 12-week training program. Slated to begin in the fall, the program is targeted for adults seeking career change, high school dropouts, or even high school graduates who don’t plan to attend college.

Students will learn entry-level skills in boatbuilding, including woodworking and fiberglassing.

While the program targets entry level workers, Tyska says the biggest gap is in middle management. He needs employees who can handle budgets, deal with people and oversee employees.

Both Tyska and Dzykewicz say the marine industry might not be recognized as a potential career. Many currently in the industry have followed in family footsteps, or they have fallen into their careers through their own interests in boating or mechanics. The marine trades in many cases can provide a long and lucrative career. The key is to get the word out.

Another approach is to spark interest in the high schools.

Warwick High School and Chariho Regional District High School offer marine technology programs that are certified by the American Boat and Yacht Council. Other schools may follow suit. ABYC and Rhode Island officials recently completed curriculum for a two-year high school program. ABYC is also encouraging local industry to join area schools to provide student internships to both complement and reinforce what is presented in the curriculum. Rhode Island is the first state to seek the ABYC stamp of approval for its program, according to Barbara Barsa, ABYC’s education director. Barsa hopes to convince other states to adopt the high school program.

“It’s a great program,” says Barsa.

The curriculum includes fiberglass construction and repair, inboard/outboard engine systems, marine systems such as plumbing and electrical, and marina operations.

ABYC, which has been providing standards for boatbuilding and repair for more than 50 years, will also provide each student participating in these programs a student membership. Graduates will also receive a marine trades journeyman certificate.

The marine industry is big business in the small state of Rhode Island and industry leaders want it to grow even bigger.

“Education is just one aspect to make sure [the marine industry] is strong and prosperous,” says Tyska.