Industry Breakfast Celebrates Success, Tackles Challenges

At RIMTA’s Industry Partnership Breakfast sponsored by Gowrie Group, marine-trades professionals came together on the busiest morning of the Newport International Boat Show to network, celebrate successes, and explore issues challenging the industry.

In addition to awarding the 2017 Anchor Award to Newport Exhibition Group, for the work they do in attracting the international boating world to Rhode Island and promoting our industry, Director of Polaris MEP Christian Cowan moderated a panel on “People, Process, and Partnership” and attendees heard from local companies about common business challenges and opportunities.

nancy and teamMatt Gruhn, president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas (MRAA), travelled from his organization headquarters in Minnesota to make a compelling case for developing our workforce as an industry on a national scale, as opposed to a piecemeal, state-by-state approach. RIMTA is currently working with MRAA and the NMMA on developing this type of national effort.

“People, Process, and Partnership” Panel. Panelists Veronica Brown (Newport Shipyard), Peggy Clay (Goetz Composites), and Larry Colantuono (Brewer Wickford Cove Marina) discussed programs available to R.I. businesses they had tapped to meet their workforce challenges—including funding for customer-service training at Newport Shipyard, hands-on composites skill training at Goetz, and ABYC certification at Brewers.

The discussion veered beyond simple presentations on what each company did, but delved into probing questions about the risks and challenges they faced. One key question was about training an employee, with the chance he or she may leave and advance a career with another company: How can a small company invest in training an employee who may leave?

Veronica Brown felt that employees valued the investment Newport Shipyard was making in them, and their customer-service training involved not only employees but also preferred sub-contractors.

The challenge of promoting skilled workers to managerial roles was also raised. In some cases, a company lost a talented worker and gained an ineffective manager. This is a problem many manufacturers face, and Christian Cowan mentioned mentorship programs in Rhode Island as a solution.

Every company in our industry has unique challenges, and the gist of the panel was not to prescribe wide-spread solutions but to get the message across that whatever your business challenges are, there is likely a program in Rhode Island to address it.

For Peggy Clay, the best first step was a call to RIMTA. Wendy Mackie, Jen Huber and Brian Dursi know the landscape of programs and funding. If RIMTA does not have a solution, they have information about what is available in the state. Members can find links to staff bios and emails here.

Building a Workforce: It Takes a Village. We’ve all heard the story of our workforce many times — how it was seriously diminished in the recession of 2008-09, but when the demand for boats and boating services returned, the growth of our workforce did not keep pace.

IMG_1057 copyMatt Gruhn released statistics at the breakfast that cover the boat-buying retail part of our business: 21% of positions that dealers had budgeted to have on their payrolls in 2016 went unfilled. Nearly 60% of those unfilled positions could be found in the service department, and a large percentage of those positions (88%) were specific to the skilled labor positions of technician and rigger. By 2019, the picture looks worse: a total of 31,000 workers or more will be needed nationally, just at the dealership level.

But Gruhn came to the RIMTA meeting to deliver more a dose of reality about the current situation: he talked about a new approach of shifting our attitudes and tackling the problem on a national scale.

As an industry, we historically have tackled this issue on a state-by-state basis, and each state keeps re-learning what the others know. RIMTA has been a leader, Gruhn pointed out, and others are modeling their programs on Rhode Island’s. But some 30 states don’t even have an active marine-trades organization like RIMTA.

Gruhn talked about the factors that hold us back. For one, our attitudes that Millennial workers are generally lazy and want a managerial role and salary with a first job. Gruhn’s experience is quite the opposite, and he asked the audience to embrace this generation. After all, previous generations such as the Gen Xers were once seen in the same light.

He also noted how many companies invest in training their sales force, but often expect graduates of technical programs to arrive on the job without the need for additional training. This is an expectation that needs to be addressed, in addition to advocating for more marine-trades programs at technical schools.

Gruhn circled back to the question posed during the panel: How can a small company invest in training an employee who may leave for another job? But he flipped that around to ask, Can you afford not to train your employees and have them stay?

The NMMA, MRAA and RIMTA are coordinating on developing a strategy to cultivate our workforce on a national scale. The project is in the start-up phase, but the thinking so far is clear: success will depend on an industry-wide effort.

That can involve shifting our attitudes, becoming more effective in telling the story of marine careers to attract new workers, advocating for more marine-trades training programs, recognizing that employers play an essential role in training employees, and paying a competitive wage.

As an industry, what we have in front of us is not a simple fix, but the challenge of building an ecosystem where all parts work together. It literally does take a village.

We will update RIMTA members on this new national approach to workforce development as news becomes available.