I’ve heard a lot lately about the cultural belief of the past several decades whereby young people need to get a four-year college degree in order to find career success having hurt the workforce needs of the marine industry.

Earlier this week a WorkBoat Regional Summit was held in Biloxi, Miss. One of the topics of this meeting “Shipyards: a Vision for the Future,” was workforce development. The whole pressure to earn a four-year college degree as a determent to the marine industry came up several times.

In my opinion, which I’m supposed to give during these blogging exercises each week, there is no bigger problem in the marine industry, let alone the shipbuilding market, than the recruiting, training and retention of new blood in the industry, preferably young people fresh out of high school or, dare I say it, college.

WorkBoat partnered with the Gulf States Shipbuilders Consortium (GSSC), whose annual meeting began the day after the summit, and carried a similar message of increasing workforce development. One might say that GSSC exists because of the labor shortage problem in the shipbuilding industry.

GSSC works closely with the NCCER, formerly the National Center for Construction Education and Research, in an effort to develop and establish a foundation for a formal workforce development system by creating a standardized curriculum in three areas — shipfitting/welding, pipefitting, and electrical. (NCCER focuses its efforts on standardized curricula for the entire construction industry, not just marine construction.)

In fairness, you have to look back at how the grandfathers and great- grandfathers of the kids you’re trying to recruit were treated when they worked at a Gulf Coast shipyard. In many cases these men were the only source of income for the family. When there was work, they worked. When things slowed down, they were laid off. Although necessary from a business perspective, that yo-yo form of employment caused great stress within these families. So the offspring of these men didn’t want anything to do with the marine industry, particularly when social norms changed concerning women in the overall workforce. Two lower paying jobs that equaled one shipyard salary, without the yo-yo effect, became more attractive.

Today, marine companies try to keep workers on in spite of slow periods. They offer better salaries, benefits, and better working conditions. All of these changes are for the better, and they are working, but not as quickly as some would hope.          

There are other organizations, community colleges, commercial training facilities, and individual company training departments all with the same objective: workforce development.

Unfortunately, it’s a long process, a needed one, a valuable one, but not a goal that can be achieved over the short haul.

This is turning a ship, not a boat.


Ken Hocke has been the senior editor of WorkBoat since 1999. He was the associate editor of WorkBoat from 1997 to 1999. Prior to that, he was the editor of the Daily Shipping Guide, a transportation daily in New Orleans. He has written for other publications including The Times-Picayune. He graduated from Louisiana State University with an arts and sciences degree, with a concentration in English, in 1978.