Mike Pretasky, chairman and CEO of Skipper Bud’s, a multi-location boat dealership and marina management company, sometimes must feel as though his dealership is a revolving door for service technicians. With locations in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi and Florida, Pretasky says his company is constantly recruiting qualified technicians because, he believes, adequately trained people are in such short supply.
And Skipper Bud’s is not alone with the problem.
“Everyone has it in some way, shape, or form,” says Phil Keeter, president of the Marine Retailers Association of America.
John Sima, owner of Sima Marine, can attest. A three-location dealership in northern Ohio, Sima Marine is always looking to hire “trained and qualified technicians,” he says.
“There’s not enough trained people, and very few people are coming into the industry,” he added. “I don’t know if we don’t make it glamorous enough?”
To be sure, with pay starting at $8 an hour, there isn’t a lot of glamour in being a service technician. But even experienced technicians who are making in the neighborhood of $15–$20 are having trouble being persuaded to stay in their jobs.
The shortage of adequately trained technicians isn’t a new thing, but the problem is at the threshhold of becoming more severe as boats and engines become more sophisticated and the inability of the industry to attract and retain quality people to fill these positions mounts.
Many in the industry weren’t shocked to see poor consumer ratings of dealer service work. In fact, they link the poor score in J.D. Power and Associates’ survey directly to the shortage of quality marine service technicians.
“We [Skipper Bud’s] do our own training and we’re getting by,” Pretasky explains, “And the industry is creeping forward at a little more than a snail’s pace, but we don’t grade well when compared with other industries.
“We [in the industry] have been putting Band-Aids on this for years.”
Problem by the numbers
The list of reasons that the marine industry has for its inability to find, hire, and retain experienced technicians is a long one. It begins with education and training, continues with rapidly advancing technological innovations, and oftentimes ends when a shortage of work flow causes a good technician to leave for better, higher-paying work. In between, there are numerous issues that need to be addressed and resolved, and most, if not all, of them lead back to the problem of poor after-the-sale service.
It’s no secret that the shortage of qualified marine technicians has been a long-standing issue. And no one believes it will be easy to find a solution.
Last year, however, the views of Pretasky and others were substantiated by the relatively low consumer ratings compiled by J.D. Power. That research supports the view that the boating industry needs to improve its repair and maintenance services.
J.D. Power surveyed the people who bought a boat during 2001 and found that boat owners are less satisfied with the repair and maintenance service they receive than are motorcycle or car owners. On a scale of 1–10, with 1 being unacceptable and 10 being outstanding, boat owners gave the service they received a statistical rating of 7.15. Meanwhile, motorcycle owners gave service a 7.85, and for car owners, it was 8.36.
“People who buy boats also buy automobiles, and they’re used to a much higher standard in both service and warranty-related performance,” says Eric Sorensen, director of marine practice at J.D. Power.
What the 7.15 rating means, Sorensen explains, is that only 16 percent of the boat owners surveyed by J.D. Power planned to buy their next boat from the same dealer from whom they bought their boat in 2001. It also means only about three out of 10 boat owners say they would definitely recommend their boat-brand to a friend.
So what appears to be a problem for the dealer is a problem for the manufacturers, as well.
Technician turnover a problem
John Sima, who has been involved in boat retailing for 30 years, said staff turnover in the service department is “a continual problem” with service technicians often leaving boat dealers to work for auto or truck dealerships.
Pretasky explains that the technicians shortage is most severe in the “snow belt” where it is more difficult to keep service department employees busy enough during the winter to justify their wages. In the “sun belt,” the work flow is more steady, so the availability of qualified technicians is not as big of a problem.
Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, believes dealers need to do more to solve the seasonal work flow problem.
“Dealerships have to start to think outside the box on how to generate sufficient revenue from service to keep those people employed year-round,”he says. “Annual service agreements or whatever it might be. All the service work doesn’t have to wait until the week before everyone wants their boat in the water.”
But Pretasky believes he’s adequately addressed the issue, and Skip Burdon, president and CEO of the American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC), believes others are doing so, too.
“We don’t lay people off unless we don’t want them,” Pretasky said.
“I’ve found, good [repair] yards keep good people,” Burdon says. “There are things to be done throughout the year to keep a good technician busy. You have to winterize boats, de-winterize boats, they all have systems that either need to be upgraded or replaced.”
“Fifteen years ago, it was tough to make money,” Sima says of being a service technician in the Cleveland area,” but dealers are larger now due to consolidation, so we can pay better.”
In northern Ohio, a service technician with five years experience can earn $15–$20 an hour, plus benefits, Sima says. However, entry-level pay for a marine service technician in northern Ohio is in the $8–$10 range.
Adding to the problem is the fact that not all boat manufacturers pay dealers the full retail wage rate for warranty service work. This, Sima explains, negatively impacts dealers’ ability to offer higher wages to their service technicians.
“Through training,” Burdon explains, “if you raise their technical efficiency, then you should be able to pay them a little bit more.
“There has to be a clear-cut training program and an expectation you’ll be promoted and you’ll earn a good wage and have decent benefits and the industry appreciates what you do. I’m not saying we’re bad. I’m saying there’s plenty of room for improvement.”
While no one really expects there to be an easy solution to this problem, efforts are underway to address it. According to Burdon, plans are being set to hold the “First Annual Marine Industry Professional Development Summit” in the Baltimore/Annapolis, Md., area sometime in March.
Based in Edgewater, Md., the ABYC is pushing for the summit because it has been developing, writing and updating safety standards for boat building and repairing in the United States for nearly 50 years.
“ABYC has developed standards through voluntary consensus of the industry,” Burdon said. “We want to teach to those standards, thereby increasing the safety and fun for the end user.
“There’s many really good, successful [marine industry training] programs, but they’re few and far between and they’re not coordinated. What we’re trying to do is to be able to train to the standards so the standards remain very viable and useful and have a direct impact on the safety of boating and [boat owners] have a consistent, reliable product.”
Burdon wants a professional development summit to become an annual event, and he said the ABYC applied to the OMC Foundation (founded by the Evinrude family in 1945 and not connected with the now-defunct Outboard Marine Corp.) for a grant to pay for the gathering.
One of the groups most anxious to participate in the professional development summit is the Association of Marine Technicians (AMTECH), a five-year-old non-profit organization formed to “enhance the skill level and professionalism of all marine technicians.”
“The industry has done a very poor job in making a career as a marine technician attractive,” said Joe De Marco, president of the Roswell, Ga.-based association. “It is imperative that the industry recognizes that this matter has now reached the critical state, and the industry at-large must act soon to improve the conditions.”
AMTECH was encouraged to participate in the summit,
The proposals AMTECH plans to submit are:
• Establish a comprehensive outboard certification program for service technicians. De Marco believes the outboard certification program should be similar to what the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence developed for the auto industry.
• Create a marine school accreditation board to establish a core curriculum that could be adopted by existing school marine technology programs, and by schools planning to open new marine technical training programs. This is necessary because the boating industry has never set entry-level requirements for service technicians, De Marco said.
• Establish a “marine service alliance” to allow all marine technicians, “regardless of their factory affiliation,” to receive technician service information, tools and other help needed in order to repair all types of boats and engines. AMTECH is proposing that the marine service alliance be patterned after the auto industry’s service alliance, De Marco said.
The summit also is expected to include representatives of the recreational vehicle (RV), automobile, trucking and ski industries along with educators and occupational training experts who will share their ideas on the subject of professional development, according to Burdon.
The RV industry, which faces many of the same issues as the boating industry, has tried technicians training programs at vocational schools and community colleges, but the RV industry appears happy with its three-year-old “distance learning” program, which provides weekly classes, distributed by satellite TV or broadband Internet, mainly to participating dealerships around the country.
Although directed towards dealership service department employees, the RV industry distance learning classes are available to whomever is willing to pay the $1,300 enrollment fee and buy a special satellite receiver or get broadband Internet access, said Lance Wilson, executive director of the Florida RV Trade Association (FRVTA), which came up with the original idea for the now-nationwide program.
ABYC wants to teach to industry standards
A goal of the summit will be to make technicians training more available at the vocational high schoo, community college, and industry association levels, Burdon says.
Keeter, the MRAA head, agrees that the availabiliity of training programs scattered around the country are “spotty.” And although many boat engine manufacturers offer training to their dealers’ service technicians, those dealers often have to “take a chance” that someone they hire can develop into a competent service technician.
“Mercury and Bombardier have pretty good training programs,” said Pretasky, “but the boat companies are not doing as well. But that’s because we’re a fragmented industry, and they [boat builders] don’t have a lot of control over their suppliers.”
Consequently, it is the boat manufacturers who need to do more in the way of training, Pretasky says. He estimates that 60–70 percent of all repair service work is not related to the engine or drive train. Other estimates for non-engine related work are lower, and the amount of that type of works seems to be a case-by-case basis depending upon the types of boats the dealership sells.
Larger boats, for example, “are like a floating house” including many home appliances that require special training classes, Pretasky said. He went on to suggest that, “Maybe the NMMA should take it [technicians training] as a focus instead of running boat shows?”
A component of training is certification, which is the level of proficiency trainees need to attain. Currently, the NMMA’s boat certification (for watercraft under 26 feet in length) is based on the ABYC’s standards, and the NMMA’s yacht certification (for watercraft 26 feet and longer) is based on most of the ABYC’s standards. But as Dammrich pointed out, “We have product certification, we don’t certify people.”
Both Dammrich and Burdon agree that training and certification programs should give attention both to upgrading the skills of people currently working in the boating indsutry as well as preparing high school, technical/vocational school and community college students for careers in the leisure marine industry.
Unfortunately, not all marine industry-related technical training efforts at the high school level have been successful. For example, the vocational high school that serves the entire city of Cleveland has offered a marine technicians class for about 25 years, but Sima says he has found that only 1 out of every 10 students who attended its program turned out to be good employees.
“We probably need to do both, to educate the current workers and to provide a pipeline of qualified workers for the future,” Dammrich said. “A lot of people who worked in this industry a long time are nearing retirement and if we don’t have people to step in when they retire, it’s going to leave a huge hole.”
Long term, Burdon wants the ABYC to support its standards-writing activities by becoming “the clearing house for all technical education that goes on in our industry.” He said that he believes that technicians could take a “distance-learning” course through the ABYC, the NMMA, or the American Boat Builders and Repairers Association. After completing a specified number of continuing marine education credits, they’d get a certificate in a particular area or a general studies certificate.
“We want to be able to collect all that [student] data, put it in a centralized database, make it available to the students on a secure basis, and be able to monitor it and issue certificates,” Burdon said.
Workers, for example, could release their course-completion information in the ABYC database to their employers when they apply for promotions or pay raises, he added. In the end, Burdon believes, boat owners, most likely, would feel more confident taking their boat and/or engine for repairs at a dealership or repair yard with industry-certified technicians.
Whether the industry believes that making the ABYC the clearing house for technical education remains to be seen, but Dammrich said that the idea “has potential.”
“None of us are turf-hunting here,” Burdon explained. “We’re looking for what’s best for the industry.”
“Many of AMTECH’s concerns regarding training and education are the same as ABYC’s,” said De Marco, who added that AMTECH is “seeking the necessary funding from the industry” to pay for implementing its proposals.
Last May, the NMMA transferred control of the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology and the Westlawn School of Yacht Design distance-learning schools, both in Stamford, Conn., to the ABYC. The grant that the ABYC applied for requested $350,000 to $400,000 from the OMC Foundation for “a Westlawn secondary school career-awareness program and for hosting an annual summit on training-related issues,” according to Burdon.
“In the future,” Burdon explained, “we’ll have other schools providing technical training on a distance-learning level.”
Currently, boat engine manufacturers sponsor their own schools to train technicians working at “authorized” dealerships.
“The problem isn’t at the manufacturer level or the manufacturers’ ability to provide good quality training,” Dammrich says. “Most engine dealers have access to that training. I think the authorized dealers have access to quality training today, it’s a question of whether they utilize it.
“A bigger issue for the Joe De Marco’s of the world is there are a lot of people repairing engines who are not official dealers of the engine companies. So they don’t have access to the training, to the service bulletins … They don’t have access to a lot of the information the [authorized] dealers have.”
Whether or not those manufacturer-provided training programs should be available to more people should be decided by the individual manufacturer, Dammrich says.
“That’s a decision each manufacturer should make on their own. I think they [engine manufacturers] prefer that their engines be serviced by their authorized dealers.”
Burdon says he believes distance learning is a useful tool, but acknowledges that it must be interactive and allow students to proceed at their own pace in order to be most effective. There are many topics regarding how this could be implemented and what programs should or should not be included.
Burdon is looking forward to the brainstorming that he hopes will happen at the summit.
“If we do it right,” he says, “we could be a model for other industries.”
ABYC now offers On-Site Training
The American Boat & Yacht Council now offers marine technicians training at manufacturing companies, maintenance and repair yards, dealerships and surveyor firms, the ABYC announced in mid-September.
The Edgewater, Md.-based ABYC will offer its training, geared toward shop-floor technicians, at marine businesses that can come up with at least 15 students. If one company has fewer than 15 students, then it could host and coordinate the training for marine businesses in its area in order to satisfy the minimum 15-student requirement.
The ABYC is offering specially tailored promotions for the marine businesses that participate as a host for the “Convenience Learning Program.”
“ABYC can either provide our standard, or a customized program to fit specific marine facility or local area training needs,” said Bonnie Barsa, the ABYC’s education director. “Whether the program is a three-day basic electrical course or a specific five-day certification program that includes testing — such as our new Corrosion Control or Composite Boat Builder Certification — on-site training is more convenient and cost-efficient for marine businesses.”
On-site training eliminates or greatly reduces travel costs for the students involved and minimizes the amount of time students are away from the shop.
“Because everyone is looking for well-qualified and efficient technicians,” Barsa explained, “we want to encourage marine facilities to take advantage of this cost-effective option.”