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Labor shortage in the Marine Industry

One issue causing a small buzz is the lack of trade workers. From what I have seen on different media outlets this is effecting all trades. From plumbing to carpentry, from electricians to metal worker there are lots of openings with very little people willing to do the work or have the skills to do the tasks. The marine industry is no different. Boatyards, marinas, and service shops are finding themselves short handed. For one reason or another this issue interests me so I decided to look at it a little closer. I chose the boatyard I work at to do my research. Why, because with this issue hanging over the waterfront Strouts Point Wharf Company has seemed to combat this issue pretty well. With over half of the employees holding a 10+ year tenure and 3 of those in the 20+ range the yard knows how to keep employees. Also in the past 3 years I have worked here we have recruited 4 employees and we also have a contingency of season workers that always come back.

So to get to the bottom of what is going on here a this Yard and industry wide I made a questionnaire to gather information. Here are those questions:

  1. How long have you been working in the Marine field?

  2. What motivated you to come to the Marine field?

  3. What position did you start out at? What tasks did you do? What age were you at this point?

  4. What is your position now? What tasks do you do? What age are you now?

  5. What keeps you here at this yard?

  6. What do you feel is the biggest issue causing a lack of good trade workers? And in your opinion, how do you fix it?

  7. Do you, or have you ever want to get out of the marine field?

I picked 5 of my fellow employees to answer these questions, my General Manager and Service Manager, the Dockmaster and Yard Foreman, and a General Labor, and of coarse myself a seasoned tech. This opens up the age range from 23 to 66, and has a tenure range from 4 months to 20+ years. In that mix you have a diverse group of trades as well from structure to mechanical, and finish to electronics.

Now to address the elephant in the room. Where are all the trade workers? One common answer to this is a generational one. I don’t want to turn this into a bashing of millennials and don’t want to finger point. Neither help the situation. That still leaves the question of why don’t people want to work in the marine trade. Lack of pay was brought up several times, even the General Manager and Service Manager mentioned it. Which is funny because I feel the pay scale is more fare than ever. Another issue that our new hire Dock master brought up was we are on the back side of the the “College Craze Wave”. She is in her 30’s and remembers being preached to about going to college rather than getting right into a field or going into a trade school. I remember the same preaching in my youth as well and I just turned 40. Along with those reasons my Service Manager pointed out that the interest in how things work has faded and now people just want them to work. So in short this is not a quick fix, no blown fuse, no loose ground. So what are we going to do? Well we can only pay so much, but there are many perks to working in a boat yard that a General Manager can use to offset pay. Investing in your employees with school. This helps keep your yards knowledge base high and empowers your employees. In house financing, this allow for you employees to increase there tool arsenal, but also can work in the yards benefit as well. For instance off the top of my head I know 6 employees here that have boats. Let’s say one of them wants to install a new “Widget”. This Widget is cutting edge technology just coming into the market. Sadly though it is out of the employees financial reach. Well the Yard finances it for the employees with the agreement to be able to show it to customers. Now a customer walks in asking about these new Widgets he saw at the boat show. Now the GM can say “Well Johny Yardworker Just put one in his boat. Let’s go look at it?”. Before you know it Widgets are flying of the shelf at a %30 markup. The employee is happy, the GM is happy, and now your Widget owning customers are happy. If you brainstorm a bit you can discover plenty of little perks to working at a boatyard to keep your crew happy and new talent coming in.

Talent, now that is key. Good, skilled workers. They just don’t just make themselves. My Service Manager started as the Dock Master and moved up the ladder as the company invested in him. The Yard Foreman started out shuffling jackstands and driving a grinder. There are many stories like this at this yard, and across the waterfront. It shows that providing an apprenticeship type environment where you can grow and learn a trade will allow you to build a loyal and skilled workforce. Now this doesn’t come easy or cheap. Mistakes will be made, but teaching them what they did wrong and allowing them to fix it provides a lesson in itself. Another thing I find that most work places lack is a solid review program. When I was in the Navy we got a formal review every year and an informal review 6 months before that. I always knew where I stood, what I was good at, and what I needed to work on. Now that takes time out of the GM and SM’s already busy schedule, and they don’t always see everything. In my opinion a review should be a collection of information from all levels of the crew. I can go a full day with out seeing my GM, but the guy that shuffles jack stands sees me two to three times a day. Maybe he saw me through a rag in the middle of the parking lot and leave it, or maybe he saw me going out of my way to help another employee or customer. Given money pays the bills, but gratitude and constructive criticism hold a big value to a good employee.

It’s not like this issue has been ignored. There have been meetings involving the leaders of this industry, but there is another issue. If you want to know how to get more techs in and retain the techs we have…ask them. That is the first step on getting this boat back on coarse. Another step is start recruiting from schools. That teenager you hire for the summer could very well be the next service manager. Along that path they have the potential to be a great employee if you take the time to train them. Pair them with a senior tech. Move them around the yard. Find out what they are good at.

Thank you.

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