For the future of the industry, hire interns, both college and high schoolers. And pay them: none of that silly privileged unpaid intern crap that occurs in non-maritime industries.
I generally wait until I receive the printed issue to read Maritime Reporter and Engineering News, and when I read the August edition, I was both delighted and frustrated, mostly because of the two articles on shipbuilding workforce development.
There is so much STEM wheel spinning and to see reports on shipyard apprentice programs once again reminded me that our industry is almost unique in having the tools to develop and train capable technologists and engineers. In maritime we know how to do STEM (As a matter of fact, we know how to do STEMPHLA, since maritime includes all those components, as I, coincidentally, argued in my August 2019 issue column)
In many industries there is little or no middle ground between manual labor and the professional class. This means that the opportunities to cross over to the professional class are limited. However, as shown by the apprentice program articles, in maritime there is a much more effective continuum between labor and the professional class. Remarkably, even at a modestly skilled labor level, there are still ample opportunities to make middle class incomes in maritime. In addition, most skills acquired in the maritime field are portable and therefore ensures job security, although land-based employers may not always immediately understand that a marine mechanic (or welder, or rigger, or etc. etc.) is simple a more flexible version of a land mechanic.
Kids that have had to suffer my presence all know my line: “If you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up, look at maritime.” Often, I need to be more long winded: “Don’t worry about what kind of maritime, just do it. You may love it or hate, but you will not have wasted your time. You will have learned a lot and that will help you plan your next move.” For kids that are interested in engineering I have a slightly modified line: “If you do not know what type of engineering you are interested in or if you know little about the profession of engineering, study Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering”.
I will focus on the kids interested in engineering for the rest of this column, since the August articles already provide a starting point for the others. Too many kids do not go into engineering because they have little understanding of what engineers do and know that studying engineering is very hard. The one reason I suggest Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering is because it is the most tactile form of engineering education. Engineering education inherently is very abstract in the early years, but if you can link it to tactile devices it becomes much easier. Aerospace and automotive engineering provide similar benefits, but the tactility barrier is much higher today.
This relates to the simple fact that a college freshman can design and build a real functional boat, but it is almost impossible for them to design and build a real functional car or airplane. They can get their hands on a real airplane or a real car, but if they take control of its construction the negative consequences can be deadly. (Yes they can build a go kart, but I have found that students have powerful BS sensors and pretend educational exercises provide very little educational grit)
In boats the negative consequences mostly extend to a dunk in the water with a life jacket and possibly some peer embarrassment. In other words, there is a smooth arc of complexity in naval architecture and marine engineering learning. The inability of engineering students to connect with their future profession is actually a serious problem in engineering education. The opportunities for high schoolers on a college track to get their hands dirty with farm equipment, or cars, or shop classes, or even bicycle repairs are almost zero today, and, therefore, the number of college bound high schoolers that have any mechanical or engineering experience whatsoever is low and lower than in previous generations.
There is a corollary to this where there are high schoolers that become exposed to computer coding and then flow into university computer engineering programs. This by itself may explain why in recent decades there has been so much focus on internet business development and insufficient attention to hard infrastructure and global warming solutions.
However, we may see a shift soon. Global warming is emerging as the most pressing threat to humanity and that will motivate young people to get involved and that work will be very much hardware driven, whether in the form of offshore wind, or zero emission ships, or in the form of any number of hardware systems that we have not even conceived yet.
Just like the space race inspired my generation to become engineers, let’s inspire today’s teens with their unique challenge to become engineers. But where do these young people start?
If their start relies on enrollment into engineering school we will get students who only barely understand why they are studying what they are studying. We need to start earlier. There are scattered high school programs out there, but they are far and few between. What we need is to expose teens and preferably even younger kids to as much real technology (never ignore kids’ BS sensors) as possible. And where better than maritime? Maritime industry employers and engineers here is your challenge, what can you do to expose as many kids as possible to the promise of maritime and maritime engineering?
This is a difficult complex, fraught with perceived liability issues and TWIC restrictions, but maritime always solves it problems and we can do it.
Maritime operators contact your local high schools, grade schools, boy and girl scout troops, boy & girls clubs, etc. and open your doors. Tell them what they can expect and how they can enter the trade. These kids are lost, they need guidance, a lot of it and, with persistence, we will get the cream of the crop.
For engineering companies it is actually a little easier. Hire interns. Yes, hire college interns, but also hire high schoolers. And pay them, none of that silly privileged unpaid intern crap that occurs in non-maritime industries. My company has hired dozens of high school interns (and as many college interns). We pay them and, I will disclose a company secret. Once you figure out how to run high school interns they will actually make you money too (and actually no less than college interns). Not all of them will work out, but one hot shot out of four pays the bills and in our experience we score much better than that.
Even stranger, we have discovered that high school grades have little correlation to hot shot success. What we have found is that once kids figure out what they like, they will kick in and make themselves productive by hook or by crook. For the vast majority of kids doing grown up work is what they like, so challenge them and they will reward you and our industry.
In my next column I will provide further guidance on running successful high school engineering intern programs.
For each column I write, MREN has agreed to make a small donation to an organization of my choice. For this column I nominate the Connecticut Maritime Association intern stipend program. https://www.cma-edu.org/internships/ If you need to convince your boss to hire interns this may be the thing to close the deal.