20 Apr Meet 2016 Boater of the Year Neal Harrell

2010 copyright and iptc info

When Neal Harrell was awarded with RIMTA’s John H. Chafee Boater of the Year Award as a person who has contributed to the success of the recreational boating industry in Rhode Island, he joined a long line of boating luminaries. The late Ted Hood, Sr., Halsey Herreshoff, Ken Read: they are past winners who spun their boating prowess into high profile careers. But Harrell’s first brush with the boating business did not come from on-the-water skill. He has moreso been an expert first in what really fuels our industry: people.

As founder and president of Brooks Marine Group in Newport, Harrell’s company is a management recruiting firm that specializes in placing talented senior managers, middle managers and trades workers with boat builders, boat yards, marinas, suppliers, and dealerships.

Bringing his Expertise to the Marine Sector

Harrell was a recruiter first, working at a firm in North Carolina and finding talent for the automotive sector and clients such as BMW, Mercedes, and Toyota. But that all changed the day he opened up the local paper and learned that a large boat builder was relocating to his home state.

“The company’s move was going to be a big economic boost for our community. They were going to hire some three to four hundred people,” said Harrell. He introduced himself to the company as a recruiter with a niche in manufacturing, and they hired him to help them staff their operation. The only hitch: workers needed experience from the boat-building industry.

Harrell started calling around the country and learned quickly how his expertise in automotive manufacturing could be put into play in the marine sector, and how no one was filling the niche of finding talent for boat builders.

Fast forward two years and Harrell had positioned himself at the helm of his own company, Brooks Marine Group, based in Ft. Lauderdale, to fill that niche. He moved the company to Rhode Island in 2010, and the Brooks Marine Group offices are located in Newport on the IYRS campus.

Making Things Happen in Rhode Island

When he started out, an early mentor of Harrell’s told him the marine industry had two chief problems: the shrinking of the working waterfront, and the disappearance of the marine trades workforce. “That was thirteen years ago, and boy is that ringing true today,” said Harrell. “In an effort to get out ahead and turn that challenge into an opportunity, I have always promoted whatever we can do to hold onto working waterfront and build up our trades workforce.”

That focus led him to RIMTA. Working with the Governor’s Workforce Board, RIMTA was exploring the possibility of launching an apprenticeship program for the marine industry in Rhode Island, and Harrell was the perfect person to do the initial research.

But after four months of intensive investigation into other industries’ apprenticeship programs, Department of Labor standards, and models that are used in other countries, Harrell and RIMTA decided that the right course was to start first with the basics by creating a short-term program for pre-apprentices.

Today, the RIMTA Marine Trades & Composites Pre-Apprenticeship Training Program has become a shining success, with metrics for the last three classes a highly impressive measure: 96% job-placement rate, 95% six-month job retention rate, and 89% one-year job retention rate.

Harrell credits RIMTA CEO Wendy Mackie, Program Director Jen Huber, and the entire team with giving this program wings. He remains deeply involved, giving talks to potential recruits and teaching students about resume writing, interviewing, and the mindset needed to build a successful career in our industry.

Soon after he arrived in Rhode Island, Harrell also spearheaded the Marine Industry Happy Hours. “My first summer in Rhode Island was great, an epic summer, but then November rolled around and when I walked out of my office at 4:15 it was dark and cold.” He invited some marine colleagues for a beer at the Clarke Cooke House after work. They decided to make this a regular event and soon, more colleagues joined in. Today, these gatherings take place in the off season and draw over 50 attendees and a waiting list of companies wanting to sponsor.

Setting the Bar in Rhode Island

Harrell works on a national scale finding talent for marine companies throughout the U.S., and he well knows that one of the industry’s biggest challenges is finding great people. He views Rhode Island as a leader, setting the bar when it comes to workforce development for the marine trades.

“In the marine industry, Rhode Island is better than any state I know of–and I have looked at a lot of training models,” said Harrell. The RIMTA Pre-Apprenticeship Program is a model being emulated in other states.

The biggest ways Rhode Island can build on its success, as Harrell sees it, is to invest more in cross-training employees and to simply do more of what it is doing and expand the capacity of its training programs. But he cautions that in an industry that relies on discretionary spending, growth has to be planned carefully with contingencies for times when the economy cycles downward.

Harrell will continue to stay engaged with RIMTA as an important expert in workforce development, and he will no doubt continue to push for continuing progress. “Here in Rhode Island, we are doing a lot of things right,” he says, “but there is always more we can do. I am a big believer in continuous improvement.”