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October 15, 2008
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Tools of the Trade

RCC students

Mark Drexler (center) works on a motor with RCC students. ©Tom Martin/RCC

RCC students

Mark Drexler (center) works on a motor with RCC students. ©Tom Martin/RCC

Virginia Marine Resource Bulletin
Volume 40, Number 1, Fall/Winter 2008
By Margaret Pizer

Last June, Morgan Oliver and seven of his classmates became the first graduates of Rappahannock Community College’s (RCC’s) new dual-enrollment program in marine trades. But more than a year before he graduated, Oliver could already thank the marine trades program for getting his career as a marine mechanic off to a roaring start. After one year in the program, which Oliver started as a high school senior, RCC Instructor Mark Drexler alerted him to a job opportunity at Chesapeake Boat Basin in Kilmarnock, and, according to Oliver, “he set us up the first year with knowledge to help us get an entry-level job and be very proficient.”

And that’s just what Oliver did, combining school and work to complete the second year of the program, which offers students both high school and college credit. Drexler and other instructors teach students about small motors, basic engine theory, rules and regulations for marine mechanics, and a variety of other practical skills, right down to dealing with customers and the day-to-day operations of boat dealerships and marinas.

The owner of York River Marine in Mataponi, Drexler says, “The problem that I’ve had in the business ever since the first day we opened the doors was not having any qualified workers.” So when RCC began to develop its programs in marine trades training, Drexler signed on to teach. “I figured I knew what I needed in an employee and I knew what other people were looking for. So far we’re really producing a lot of qualified workers who can get jobs that are close to home.”

The need to train new members to join the aging marine workforce was one of the main motivations for offering a marine trades program in Virginia, says Tom Murray, a marine business specialist at the VIMS. Back in 2001 and 2002, Murray was hearing from people in the industry that “the largest impediment was a lack of qualified young people.”

To quantify this need, Murray coordinated a survey that was sent out through Sea Grant programs in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Delaware, and New Jersey to marine businesses in each state. The respondents included 320 boatyards, marinas, and other marine firms, with a total full-time workforce of 5,765. At the time the survey was completed, the firms identified 470 open full-time positions in need of qualified candidates—86 of those openings were in Virginia. “The results showed widespread agreement that vocational training and certification were needed, and businesses were willing to pay for the training.”

In Virginia, 83% of the companies were willing to pay to send employees out for training. Murray estimated that the economic benefit to Virginia of training new employees to fill its 86 vacant positions would be an increase in $3.44 million in Virginia boatyard output, $1.62 million in Virginia employee wages and compensation, and $626,000 in boatyard proprietor’s income.

Armed with this data, Murray worked with Virginia’s Tidewater Marine Trades Association to form a steering committee of industry representatives. Calling themselves the Atlantic Boat and Yacht Trade School Committee, the group studied other marine trades education programs around the country and developed a curriculum, which RCC used to get its program off the ground.

According to RCC Vice President for Workforce Development Nancy Lloyd, the first thing the school did was to offer American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) certification exams. Next, in 2006, the dual enrollment program got up and running. Currently, about 40 students are enrolled in the two-year program, which is offered at the RCC Glenns Island campus and at Northern Neck Technical Center in Warsaw. Last summer, additional open-enrollment marine trades courses were inaugurated for adult learners. The RCC marine trades program is now one of four ABYC-recognized training centers in the nation.

Both Lloyd and Oliver emphasize the value of marine trades for everyone in coastal Virginia. A self-professed “motor fanatic,” Oliver has started a new job as head marine mechanic at Morningstar Marina in Glenns Island. Having graduated from the dual enrollment program, he has set his sights on advanced certifications from motor manufacturers like Mercury.

He and his fellow graduates have fared well on the job market, despite generally poor economic conditions. “On the Northern Neck and the Middle Peninsula, we’re surrounded by water, and people make a living on the water every day,” says Oliver. “Their stuff is going to break down. It’s a very good field to get into.” This claim is bourn out by the results of the 2004 needs assessment, in which marine businesses ranked certified outboard and diesel mechanics as their most pressing needs.

But Oliver says you don’t have to be interested in a career in the marine industry to benefit from the dual-enrollment program. Students who want to learn to do general maintenance on their own boats can learn it through the program while getting high school and college credit.

Lloyd concurs, adding that the open-enrollment courses also welcome boat owners who want to gain a better understanding of how their vessels work. “There are something like 15,000 boats registered in Gloucester, Matthews, and Middlesex counties,” she says. “That’s a lot of boat owners. I want them all to come to class.”