I’m sure you’ve heard the lament: kids are coming out of public high schools today without basic English and math skills. And you probably say to yourself, “Yeah, I’ve heard that for years. That’s terrible.” Then you go back to your beer or cellphone or TV show — or all three.

Another lament you’ve probably heard for years is that it’s hard to bring young people into the marine industry. For shipyard owners looking for help to meet the demands of multiple newbuild and repair contracts, the two have a connection — a close one.

Back in September, I moderated a panel of shipyard executives as part of WorkBoat’s Professional Series Regional Summit in Point Clear, Ala. I’ve moderated a number of these panels over the years, looking for ways to attract young people to the boatbuilding industry, training them and keeping them. I asked a question about the biggest problems these executives run into when trying to hire young people to work at their shipyards.

“One of the things we see too much of is that these kids can’t use a ruler. That can’t work with fractions,” said Jeff Allman, manager, workforce and training strategy, Ingalls Shipbuilding. As he was saying this, several heads in the audience were nodding.

So, how practical would it be for shipyards that have them to include a basic math refresher course in their training programs? And would it be worth the effort?

Author Kate Nonesuch, Malaspina University-College, Duncan, British Columbia, wrote in the introduction to her “Changing the way we Teach Math, A Manual for Teaching Basic Math to Adults,” that when she began teaching basic math (whole numbers, fractions, decimals and percent) to adults 25 years ago she started teaching as she had been taught, that is, the teacher did the math at the blackboard and the students watched the teacher do math, and listened to her talk about doing it. Then they worked in their own books, and took the tests at the end of the chapter and at the end of term.

“From the beginning, from the very first term, I knew it wouldn’t work,” said Nonesuch. “Students were bored and frustrated by their lack of activity and their lack of understanding. I was bored and frustrated by their lack of engagement and their lack of understanding.”

Nonesuch said that teaching young adults basic math skills can be accomplished, but it takes a multi-prong approach. If you read Nonesuch’s non-traditional approach to teaching adults, it seems to be a system that would take a lot of training of the instructors, followed by the normal resistance that most adult students project. In other words, it would take too long.

But it might be possible that some of these kids are more motivated this time around. Ten years ago they were asking the age old question of students everywhere, “How am I going to use this stuff when I get out of school?” Well, here’s one way.

“Yes, we find that they will [learn basic math skills] if it is necessary,” said Phil Callahan, president and CEO, SPARX Welding & Technology Institute, Houma, La., where students can be ready for job placement in seven weeks, sometimes less. “It becomes a question of how dedicated the student is. It’s really on a case-by-case basis.”


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.