Workforce Development: Why it matters

By Sarah Devlin
Content Director, American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC)

The 2021 Boating Industry annual dealer survey indicates one of the top challenges for dealers is finding qualified marine technicians. For this three-part series, the American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC) team is reaching out to key players in the industry to address why this is a concern, what programs are available, and how each of us in the industry can help solve the workforce deficit.

A well-trained workforce matters, but finding experienced technicians can be a time-consuming and frustrating task. Identifying and hiring qualified workers runs much deeper than simply posting a job to LinkedIn or Indeed.

A 2019 survey from the Massachusetts Marine Trades Association (MMTA) confirms the recent Boating Industry survey results, indicating that outboard techs, I/O gas techs, and electrical techs are the most difficult positions to fill, but the skills gap crosses all industries. In fact, a recent McKinsey article states, “Almost 40% of American employers say they cannot find people with the skills they need, even for entry-level jobs.”

We’ve identified the need for experienced and skilled professionals in our industry, but why does workforce development matter? In short, like cars, boats need maintenance. The automotive industry has done a remarkable job both investing in its workers and positioning itself as a leading trade industry for building a career. The marine industry as a whole has not.

One of the biggest challenges for boaters to stay in boating is the time and money associated with repairs. A boat that needs infrequent repair, or a boat that receives high-quality and timely maintenance, keeps our customer on the water, significantly less frustrated, and potentially involved with boating for a lot longer.

The majority of high schools with trade programs are employment feeders for local auto shops. A customer purchases a new car and they have the option to sign up for maintenance packages. The car breaks down; they call the mechanic and the shop fits them in quickly and efficiently.

As Margaret Podlich, executive director of the American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC) Foundation and the Educator Training Conference (July 20-22) organizer, says, “Somebody who is trained is often attracted to cars. The automotive industry is very organized. Auto repair is known as a year-round job while boating may be perceived as a seasonal job.”

Although there are examples to the contrary, overall, boating customers do not reap the same benefits as the car buyer.

“The auto industry is ahead of us,” Podlich says.

“Boating customers have an emotional attachment to their boats,” John Adey, president of ABYC, adds. “But if too many weekends are ruined due to an engine or systems mishap, they sell the boat. They don’t need the boat like they need their commuter car.”

Why Invest in Your Team?

“In Maryland, boating is estimated to have a $3.5 billion annual economic impact. That is no small thing,” says Lia Jaros, Workforce Development Coordinator for Marine Trades Association of Maryland (MTAM). “In order to secure longevity of the industry and keep it healthy and thriving, we must turn our attention to workforce development.”

When we look at the expense associated with developing in-house education or supporting initiatives in the industry to train our people, we need to consider money saved (and later earned) over money spent. An experienced technician can identify work that needs to be done, work that isn’t up to code, and work that isn’t complete before your customer takes their boat on the water. Also, when you hire someone with experience, they tend to work faster, can adjust to the existing corporate culture quickly, and hit the ground running within hours.

According to a Gallup poll last year, organizations that have made a strategic investment in employee development report 11% greater profitability and are twice as likely to retain their employees. Strategic investments include continued education, professional development, and further skills training.

Team members with higher levels of engagement:

  • Produce substantially better outcomes;
  • Treat customers better and attract new ones;
  • Are more likely to remain with their organization than those who are less engaged.

“The workforce shortage is a reality that the marine industry has been experiencing for the past several years and we are living the effects in our businesses,” says Gregg Snyder of Yamaha Marine Group, an organization that has invested significant time and money in internal and more widespread industry outreach with school partnerships, an apprenticeship program, and technician certification training. “If we [as an industry] continue to make skilled workforce a lower priority, we will continue to struggle filling those critical jobs that current and future customers depend on.”

Along with Yamaha, organizations such as Safe Harbor Marinas, Diversified Marine (a Maryland-based service organization), and multiple state trade associations are investing time and money in workforce development, which we will review in upcoming articles in this series.

Why Get Involved with High Schools and Training Organizations?

“The M.O. of the education system for at least the last three decades has been that everyone needs to go to college,” says Mike Bonicker, lead instructor at ABYC. “This has led to an overall devaluation, minimization, or elimination of technical training programs in secondary schools. Students are not actively encouraged to pursue vocational interests, which can provide a very good living and a rewarding career for those not inclined to attend college.”

According to Jaros, “This has been a pain point expressed by my members for years as their technicians and mechanics are approaching retirement age. They are not seeing an abundance or even an adequate number of young people entering the industry and learning the skills needed to replace the retirees.

“This emphasis on college attendance has had the unfortunate effect of casting suspicion of under-performance or even lack of cognitive ability on young people who choose not to attend college, but to enter a trade after high school,” she continues. “This is, of course, a wholly undeserved characterization and it’s worth noting that we are beginning to see a change in this thinking.”

Indeed, a recent Pew Research article based on a 2016 study indicates the tide may be turning in favor of more technical and vocational training.

“A substantially larger share of the public has positive attitudes towards certification programs in a professional, technical, or vocational field in the context of workforce development. Some 78% of Americans think that these programs prepare students well for a job in today’s economy.”

 The same article, however, also states that people who have full training credentials or are certified, but did not attend college or did not acquire a Bachelor’s degree, are less likely to apply for a job that requires such a degree—especially among the younger demographic. This means there is a potential group of solid hires who aren’t even applying because our job listings are focused on a college education.

“Experienced technicians may not even know that working on boats is an option, and we have to work throughout the industry to surmount that,” Podlich states.

“We need more people who are better trained in manufacturing and repair,” she continues. “There is something that every single person currently in the boating industry can do to help the next generation.” Stay tuned for a second article in this series of three where we will discuss what is available for continued education, industry training, and secondary and post-secondary schools.

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  1. Having worked in this industry for over 50 years, I can tell you that a shortage of marine technicians is nothing new. My company helped start a marine technician training program back in the 1990’s. It did not go anywhere due to a Lack of industry backing. The automotive industry grouped together to form ASE. All the big manufacturers financially backed this endeavor. Today you can go anywhere in the USA and find automotive technicians proudly wearing an ASE patch on their uniform. When ALL the large marine engine manufacturers pool their energy (dollars) and decide to follow a similar path to ASE, that is when the shortage of trained marine technicians will become a problem of the past.

  2. May 19, 2021

    I also have over 50 years, Around boats Richard Is correct 100% But to fix the shortage will not happen over night it will take time to bring it the younger people in for most will be looking for a 365 day for a pay check.

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