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December 5, 2023

As maritime jobs rise in CT, this nonprofit is helping to train workers

SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR Workers at Hinckley Yacht Services in Stamford carefully place a winterized yacht into storage for the season using a specialized forklift.

For much of his childhood, Bryson Thomas attended summer camps at SoundWaters, a nonprofit organization in Stamford that teaches sailing and exposes students and adults to marine science aboard its iconic schooner on Long Island Sound.

“I always liked the water, and I liked driving boats and all that stuff,” Thomas said. But he wasn’t interested in going to college, he said. “When I got older, I knew that I was more of a hands-on type of person.” He wanted to learn a skilled trade. 

Last year, an opportunity landed on the shores of Stamford’s Boccuzzi Park, just a few minutes’ walk from where Thomas lives with his family. SoundWaters inaugurated a new facility and a new program, called Harbor Corps, offering paid four-month training programs for young adults starting out in the marine trades. 

It was a natural fit for Thomas, now 20 years old. He enrolled with the first cohort and started in February, learning basic skills in carpentry, fiberglass installation, small engine and vessel maintenance, welding, boat winterizing and shipboard safety in the nonprofit’s new workshop. 

“I was always familiar with the SoundWaters organization, but this program that they offered was new to me,” Thomas said. “What they provided us was what I wanted to do, so I took the opportunity.” 

It’s a good time to get into the marine business. According to the state labor department, the 4,000-plus jobs in Connecticut’s maritime sectors — everything from boat dealers to marinas, inland freight transportation and sightseeing to seafood fishing, packaging and wholesaling — is double what the industry counted 30 years ago. 

And demand for marine services is growing. Since the onset of the pandemic, marinas on Long Island Sound have seen so much increased interest, sailors are having a difficult time securing slips for their boats.

But Connecticut’s marine industry, like many of the state’s skilled trades, is struggling to recruit a workforce with basic training and interest in the field. 

That’s partly because over the last 30 years — as American companies moved industrial operations abroad and the U.S. economy shifted to producing more services than goods — comprehensive high schools eliminated technical skills instruction, encouraging students to pursue four-year college degrees after graduation instead. It’s also because students aren’t as exposed to careers in the skilled trades at a young age and simply don’t know about the types of jobs available, recruiters and workforce development leaders say. 

Some employers are trying to change that. General Dynamics Electric Boat, which manufactures nuclear submarines in Groton for the U.S. Navy, is making efforts to connect with students as young as third grade to spark interest in ship building. Recruiters in high-tech fields like mechatronics, robotics and automation are sponsoring robot-building competitions like FIRST Robotics for students.

By contrast, SoundWaters already had strong connections with K-12 students when it launched its new marine trades training program, Harbor Corps. Every year, the organization plays host to 30,000 students from elementary, middle and high schools at its sites on Long Island Sound. 

“If you go through Stamford Public Schools, you will interact with SoundWaters, and you’ll probably have been out on the schooner five or six times by the time you graduate,” said Bob Mazzone, vice president of development for the organization. Long Island Sound, he said, is “a tremendous classroom.” 

Thomas completed Harbor Corps in June and worked a few months for SoundWaters’ kayak and paddleboard rental operations before landing a job with Hinckley Yacht Services late this summer. He gets going early in the morning, around 6 a.m., working primarily with a team on varnishing and fiberglass.

“The varnish guys,” he said, “see a lot of potential in me.” 

Hinckley’s waterfront facility in Stamford, half a mile up the road from Boccuzzi Park, offers slips, a fuel dock, indoor and outdoor seasonal vessel storage, painting, repair, rigging and other services. It’s part of the Hinckley Company, based in Maine, which builds boats and operates service yards up and down the East Coast.

Scott Bryant, vice president of marketing at Hinckley, said in recent years the company has worked to develop relationships with vocational schools in the regions where it operates. It started offering tuition reimbursement for associate’s degree programs at The Landing School of Boat Building and Design in Maine, and it’s encouraged employees to help with recruiting by offering incentives in some cases for bringing in new hires. 

“We have the same challenge that a lot of other industries have right now, as we look for any kind of technician or anything having to do with the trades,” Bryant said. “It seems that there’s a shrinking pool of available people who are interested in coming to work in the marine industry.”

But Hinckley’s partnership with Harbor Corps was “kind of an organic happenstance,” Bryant said. Stamford General Manager Peter Manion had a relationship with the SoundWaters organization, “and that’s kind of fostered what happened there,” Bryant said. “It’s gone really well.”

Dr. Claudia Berlage, assistant principal of career pathways, workplace learning and apprenticeships for the Stamford public schools, said career programs that work best are often those where students can establish some familiarity with the field before taking the plunge.

“It’s really about experiential learning and access and having the confidence to say, ‘Yeah, I can be in this space. I can see myself, and I’ve been there before,’” she said.

The marine industry, for example, “is not something you just wake up and decide you want to do if you don’t have any connection to it or nobody in the family that does it,” Berlage said. “So [Harbor Corps] is definitely exposing students to those types of careers and that world.”

Mazzone said the plan for Harbor Corps is to train three cohorts of eight to 10 young adult students each year, providing the technical skills as well as soft skills they’ll need for the professional world.

Hinckley is just one of potentially hundreds of marine employers along Long Island Sound that might benefit from hiring the program’s graduates, Mazzone said, and SoundWaters is working to spread the word among industry employers that Harbor Corps graduates are ready to work.

“When they come through this program, they have gone through the gauntlet,” he said.

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