Tugboat Internship Helps Va. Man Launch Maritime Career
On-the-Water Industries Face Growing Shortage of Skilled Workers
There was painting to be done. And the Pinners Point — a 1,400-horsepower, 55-foot tugboat owned by Crofton Industries, a local maritime construction company — was a day from Norfolk’s annual Parade of Sail.
Even as the tug rumbled down the south branch of the Elizabeth River on a recent morning and a crane worked around him, Thomas kept his head down, dutiful to the task that left him sore and paint-stained.
Thomas fits the bill of what the maritime industry needs — young, skilled trade workers willing to do the little things.
In just a week, the Portsmouth native expected to be boarding a plane for California, where he’ll work on the deck and engineering room of an ocean-going ship with Chevron Shipping Company, his first paid gig in maritime.
It’ll be far from home for the 2017 high school graduate.
“This is what I signed up for,” Thomas, 19, said over the hum of the tug’s engine, adding confidently, “I’m ready for it.”
He’s starting just as challenges loom for the industry. Fewer young people such as Thomas are learning a trade. While still in high school, he enrolled at TidewaterCommunity College, where he learned to weld, a trade he can use as he moves his way up in maritime.
The aging workforce is heading into retirement, and by 2022, the United States will need 70,000 new people for its maritime fleet, U.S. Naval Institute News said in 2016.
The vacancy issue is compounded by the growing number of federal standards maritimers need to meet to work aboard a U.S. ship that travels into foreign waters, and the money it costs to get certified.
“Even though there’s going to be this huge, giant hole in the maritime industry, it’s not like there’s going to be 5,000 jobs and (companies) snatching you off the street,” said Caroline Smith, coordinator of the Norfolk-based Mid- Atlantic Maritime Academy. Smith was hired a couple years ago to help run the academy’s new boot camp and internship program, which she said was created two years ago to address the issues facing maritime.
Her program got Thomas into the classroom and on the water, experience necessary to get his Chevron job offer. Courses familiarize students with engine rooms and deck safety and provide career training like resume writing.
In the past two years, 104 students have gone through the boot camp, which is recruiting for its July class. The program includes a 160-hour internship, where students spend time aboard tugboats or sailboats in Hampton Roads. Interns have been hired for local companies like Norfolk Tug. One is working aboard a cable-laying ship that has gone as far as Guam, Japan and Singapore, Smith said.
In all, a little more than a quarter of the students have been women. Most are in their late teens or early to mid-20s.
They represent a changing face for the industry, which traditionally fills up with family members of maritimers.
About 90 percent come to the academy by way of the Workforce Innovation Fund, a federal program that covers the $5,000 cost for qualifying students to attend.
Thomas learned about the program from his cousin, who was in the first boot camp and intern class.
He wanted to travel and saw the job as his ticket away.
Thomas has three sisters and four brothers, three of whom are pursuing military careers. His father works as a barber on a naval base. But he’s the first to get into maritime.
Smith says the program provides some freedom. Students aren’t required to finish the 160 intern hours if they get a job offer.
Thomas would like to travel with his new job. He doesn’t know if he gets seasick — he’s never been far out enough at sea to not see land. But he has ambitious career goals. One of which: save some money to help his dad to start his own barbershop back home.