Rhode Island seeks marine trades workers

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Open house invites those looking for a career change, and curious about careers in the marine industry

John Headley sailed a bit as a child, and occasionally went out on a powerboat as an adult, but his knowledge of boats is limited. So why, then, would he uproot his family from Chicago and move to Bristol, R.I. looking to learn about the marine trade business?

There is a demand for highly skilled workers trained at programs such as those offered at the International Yacht Restoration School.

“My job in Chicago just played out. I was there for eight years and, long-term, it just wasn’t what I was cut out for,” says Headley, now 40. “I moved the whole family up here and this is something totally new.”

Headley, who was a computer technical consultant, signed on to the International Yacht Restoration School Marine Systems Program facility in Bristol. He wants to turn an interest in boats into a second career in the marine industry, and do boat restoration on the side.

“I chose IYRS because it was centrally located, and many of the other places I looked at were all very remote,” says Headley. “I have a wife and two small children, and I wanted to take them to a place that was close enough to civilization.”

IYRS is looking to reach out to more people like Headley. As part of its effort to stimulate potential employees in marine industry careers, the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, R.I., hosted the inaugural Rhode Island Marine Trades Day last October. About 300 people walked through the facility in one morning to talk with representatives and pick up literature at the booths of more than 120 firms.

“It’s the first of its kind, and we are absolutely amazed by its success,” says Andy Tyska, 36, president of Bristol Marine and board member of RIMTA. Tyska is active in the educational programs of the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association, which sponsored Marine Trades Day.

“We’re trying to increase awareness of the East Bay [region of Barrington, Bristol, East Providence and Warren] first and then throughout the state.”

Guy Gauvin, 45, general manager of Goetz Custom Boats, in Bristol, R.I., says he was pleasantly surprised with the turnout at the show.

“We had over 60 visitors from throughout New England and Canada,” says Gauvin. “From that total, 12 of them were solid job applicants and the remaining visitors were interested in learning more about the marine industry.”

Gauvin says many visitors were pleased and surprised to find the new facilities were air-conditioned and free of dust and fumes, and that boatbuilding was so technologically advanced.

Increasing awareness about the marine trades was one of the show’s goals, says Tyska.

“There is this misconception that boating jobs are seasonal, low-paying dirty jobs,” says Tyska. “In fact, there are year-round positions that pay well, and employers are in need of people who are highly skilled in the newer technologies.

“Rhode Island has the potential to grow its marine base over the next five years, and now it is about filling in the skills gap.”

IYRS Marine Systems facility in Bristol, is one of those groups trying to “fill the gap.” About two years ago, IYRS partnered with the American Boat and Yacht Council to develop the training program designed to teach students how to install, maintain and repair the major systems found in both power- and sailboats.

Classes include a balance of classroom and hands-on study of subjects including electrical systems, electronics, fuel systems, engines and sail drive systems, AC/refrigeration systems and firefighting systems.

Each year, students get to outfit four practice hulls. “They get built every year,” says instructor Geoff Almeida, 58, marine systems instructor. “At the end of the year, we tear it up and start all over.”

Some interested people are reluctant to go job hunting in the marine industry because it is so deeply into a down cycle. But plenty of opportunities exist, says Almeida.

“All of my [seven] full-time students from last year are now all working in the industry,” says Almeida.

Students do not need prior experience with the marine industry, he says. The course begins with the basics, then polishes the student to finish the course at a professional level. Every student at the end of the course must take a five- to six-week “externship” with a potential employer, says Almeida.

“Often, if the company likes their work and is satisfied with them, they will hire them,” says Almeida.

Goetz Custom Boats’ Gauvin says his company looks for applicants who are ambitious and willing to learn. “If we can find that applicant, we can turn them into a professional boatbuilder that can earn a very good and stable living,” he says.

Tryska says he expects the next Marine Trade Show will be held in the spring on the West Bay region of the state. For information, go to www.rimta.org

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.