Local training programs are channeling people previously unfamiliar with welding or maritime engineering into an industry that anchors many solid, middle-income jobs.
What do a teacher, a videographer and a fisherman have in common? They are among the people replacing Washington’s aging maritime workforce, where the average age is 54 and a mass exodus of retirees is just around the bend.
Elizabeth Sotack, 29, arrived in Washington five years ago with AmeriCorps, teaching environmental education and doing child-care work. When she decided she needed to make more money to pay off student loans, she enrolled in a welding training program she’d heard about on the radio.
“When I started I literally knew nothing,” said Sotack. Two years later, she’s now working as a welder for Vigor Industrial, earning twice as much as before.
Shipbuilding, ship engineering and more
Maritime sector’s economic impact: $30 billion
Total Washington jobs: 148,000
Maritime worker’s avg. salary: $70,800
Total wages: $4.1 billion
Washington State Maritime Cluster Economic Impact Study 2013
Sotack is a graduate of the Harbor Island Training Center, a program dedicated to preparing the next generation of maritime welders and known affectionately as the classroom in a shipyard. Created in 2013 in the heart of Portland-based Vigor Industrial’s Seattle shipyard, the training center is a partnership between the company and South Seattle College. It offers a six-month intensive curriculum in which students learn welding, blueprint reading, fabrication, applied math and safety procedures, while earning a variety of certifications in a hands-on setting.
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Now on its seventh class, the program has had about 140 students, estimates instructor Ken Johnson.
With a graduation rate above 80 percent and the average graduate emerging at an associate level getting $20 to $25 an hour plus full benefits, the program has attracted individuals from a wide array of backgrounds.
Kevin Heutink, 41, is a Washington native who worked as a videographer but tired of life as a starving artist and set out for the oil fields to make a better living.
When oil fell through, Heutink enrolled in the Harbor Island program.
He likes that he is learning something entirely new and that it’s an age-old craft.
“Challenging things hold your attention,” said Heutink. “Something that was impossible a month ago, you can do now.”
Others within the program had a bit more direct exposure to welding before being drawn in.
Felipe Herrera, 52, immigrated from Mexico more than 30 years ago and supported his family working on fishing vessels. He often saw welders working around the shipyard and knew they made good money.
“I thought about, what if one day in the future, I became a welder?” he said.
Now, with his kids grown, Herrera decided to pursue a new career and enrolled in the program after a presentation at South Seattle College.
One attraction for Herrera is contributing to something larger than himself.
“When you build something that will stay there forever or for a long time, that’s history and you are a part of that history,” he said.
Another attraction, of course, is the pay: At Vigor, workers make $50,000 to $75,000 a year with benefits.
The state’s shipbuilding sector employed 16,500 as of 2013, according to an economic-impact study released by the Workforce Development Council and King County.
But industry watchers expect large upcoming opportunities like the replacement of the North Pacific fishing fleet and construction of new Coast Guard icebreakers could almost double that.
The study found that Washington’s broader maritime industry directly and indirectly contributed $30 billion to the state’s economy and more than 147,000 jobs across several sectors, with the average salary for the maritime worker being $70,800.
Other programs such as Seattle Central College’s Seattle Maritime Academy are in the process of expanding their capacities to train people for such jobs.
The academy, with a new 24,000-square-foot building opening in late September, has a clear goal, said director Sarah Scherer: “to develop confident, competent mid-rate mariners.”
The academy offers two 12-month programs, one in marine-engineering technology and the other in marine-deck technology. Both conclude with a 30- to 90-day at-sea internship aboard a large commercial vessel.
In the engineering program, students learn the different facets of marine propulsion plants and equipment, as well as gain practical experience that helps them qualify under the industry’s “Qualified Member of the Engine Department” ratings.
In the deck program, which is being rebuilt, students would learn essentially all facets of deck equipment, as well as the applied navigational skills needed to earn the Able Seaman certification.
Scherer said graduates emerge typically earning $40,000 to $50,000 a year, at above an entry-level position, with clear career growth opportunities going forward.
The engineering program is particularly popular because lots of companies are looking for engineers, and the skills are transferable when it is finally time to come ashore, said Scherer.
It even brings students from out of state such as Patrick Lynch, 33, originally from Berkeley, Calif.
Lynch worked as a high-school science teacher, then began sailing full time in 2012, but wanted more than just on-the-job training. The short marine-engineering program offered by Seattle Central — a rarity — was the ideal opportunity.
Lynch said the program helped him come out “well-rounded” to work in the engine room, as well as it prepared him to ask educated questions.
He plans to head to a union hall this fall to get placed on a ship.
“I like the freedom of it,” he said. “I work when I want to work, take time off when I don’t, and the pay is adequate to really good, dependent on where you work.”
The students, instructors and industry professionals say most peopledon’t know these opportunities are out there though, especially young people.
“We’re finding this as adults, not in our youth,” said Harbor Island student Kevin Heutink.
He said the focus on the college track has made a lot of people forget that there are other options.
Dave Gering, who heads Seattle’s Manufacturing Industrial Council, shares that sentiment.
His organization developed a program dubbed “Core Plus, ”which helps cultivate practical, analytical skill and mechanical aptitude at the high-school level by training teachers.
The program was introduced in 2012 through a pilot project in Yakima that teaches classes in computer-aided-design, metal fabricating, aerospace technology, marine technology, machining, construction and agricultural-support services.
Now Core Plus is available in 30 locations throughout Washington, and Gering estimates that nearly 3,000 students have been involved.
“We have one of the great cluster economies in the world and we’ve got to bring those kids closer to the career opportunities,” said Gering.
Joshua Berger, the governor’s maritime-sector lead at the Washington State Department of Commerce, said there has been an “unprecedented level” of partnership across industry sectors, with union apprenticeship programs, as well as programs, like a high-school internship hosted by the Port of Seattle representing encouraging signs.
Chad See, a board member of the Washington Maritime Federation, said the historically fragmented industry has really come together.
However, he still thinks there’s more to be done to tell the public about the industry’s opportunities.
“We have a lot of great industries in our state, and people don’t always pay attention to them all,” said See, who is also executive director of the Freezer Longline Coalition. He said it’s important to educate people about the opportunities in the maritime industry, as they “tend to get forgotten sometimes.”