All hands on deck

Talent needs surface as regional marine industry continues to grow

Posted on Sep 11, 2019 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

With a boatload of new projects underway or in the works, the marine industry in the New North appears to be catching a strong wave toward the future.

To capitalize on the tailwinds, industry leaders have turned their attention to finding and keeping the skilled workers the industry needs to fill these specialized orders. From Marinette to Door County, regional companies are pursuing both internal and external talent-building efforts.

With the possibility of landing a $1.2 billion contract, the stakes couldn’t be higher for Fincantieri Marinette Marine. The shipyard is one of three nationwide competing for a contract to build the first of the U.S. Navy’s new guided missile frigates, or FFG(X). That $1.2 billion contract could lead to more than $19 billion for additional ships over the next 10 years.

“The legacy I want to leave in Marinette is to secure the FFG(X) program so that it lasts the next 20 years, for many generations to come, so that’s really what we’re focusing on,” says Jan Allman, CEO of Fincantieri Marinette Marine.

This past summer, the State of Wisconsin awarded the shipbuilder $31 million in grants for workforce development initiatives and shipyard improvements, while the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration awarded it a $1.1 million grant for shipyard upgrades.

That recent support is on top of a decade of private investment from Fincantieri totaling more than $120 million. Those funds went toward modernization, supply chain development and hiring and training initiatives for the 77-year-old shipbuilder. The efforts bolstered the company’s ability to build the Littoral Combat Ship Freedom-variant for the U.S. Navy.

Last summer, Lockheed Martin was awarded a $450 million U.S. government contract to begin detailed design planning for construction of four Multi-Mission Surface Combatants to be built at Marinette Marine. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will acquire the MMSCs as part of a larger agreement with the United States to enhance global security and stimulate economic progress in the two regions.

Allman says the company is ramping up in preparation for building the MMSCs, a project that will begin in October. In addition to employee training efforts, it will use the grant money to fund waterfront improvements.

Right now, Marinette Marine uses a side-launch method for ships, but that doesn’t work well for larger and heavier ships like the MMSC, Allman says. The company is putting in a syncrolift system that will allow it to lower ships into the water instead of side-launching them. It’s also adding another construction facility.

As the largest manufacturer in the Northwoods, it’s difficult to overstate the economic impact Marinette Marine delivers to both Wisconsin and Michigan — 40 percent of its workforce comes from the Upper Peninsula. More than 2,500 enter the yard each day, including 1,500 employees as well as subcontractors and customers who come onsite.

Marinette business and industry organization inVenture North completed an independent study looking at the impact of Marinette Marine jobs. It determined that each job the company creates delivers a factor of eight to the local community.

That commitment hasn’t gone unnoticed, and one special project underway on the grounds in Marinette is the construction of the USS Marinette. Allman says few cities get selected to have ships named after them, and the honor reflects the dedication of the community and the company’s workers.

“We just feel tremendously honored the Navy has selected us in recognition of the shipbuilders who build these ships,” she says.

Full steam ahead

Ann Franz, director of the North Coast Marine Manufacturing Alliance and the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, says Marinette Marine and Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding are growing as they diversify their portfolios and add capacity.

“With Marinette Marine, I think the U.S. Navy has really taken notice with the great work they are doing,” she says. “There was a time when there was a concern that they wouldn’t be doing all the Littoral Combat Ships, but they really have shown what an amazing resource that is for the Navy.”

At Bay Shipbuilding, diversifying into new projects helps keep its workforce busy year-round. On the commercial side, the Sturgeon Bay company signed an agreement in May with the Washington Island Ferry Line to build a new 124-foot, year-round car-passenger ferry to be delivered in 2020. It’s also building a 740-foot self-unloading barge for VanEnkevort Tug & Barge Co., which is slated to be delivered next year.

Another project in the works is a 639-foot Great Lakes self-propelled ship for Interlake Steamship Co., the first one to be built on the Great Lakes for Great Lakes use in the past 35 years, says Todd Thayse, vice president and general manager of Bay Shipbuilding. The vessel, which will be completed in mid-2022, will transport bulk raw materials for manufacturing.

While the region’s yacht-building side of the industry was hit hard by the Great Recession and the departure of Palmer Johnson in 2015, the shipbuilding industry has absorbed many of those skilled workers, and other companies are expanding into new markets. Burger Boat Co. in Manitowoc, for example, is diversifying its offerings from multimillion-dollar yachts by adding a more widely accessible 48-foot boat, Franz says.

When it was seeking a company to build its Lexus model yacht, Toyota looked to Pulaski-based Marquis Yachts. The vessel will make its public debut in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this fall.

The company also will soon launch a new 42-foot sport/day boat. “The Marquis 42 will have a sporty, high-end feel to it,” Josh Delforge, vice president of design and engineering for Marquis Yachts, said in a release. “It is the beginning of what will evolve into a comprehensive line of sport/day boats of varying sizes.”

Workers wanted

When it comes to workers, nearly everyone in the industry is hiring from the big players like Fincantieri to smaller companies such as Burger Boat, Cruisers Yachts and Marquis Yachts.

In its efforts to attract new talent, Marinette Marine uses recruiting firms as well as employing a targeted recruiting team. It’s a strategy the company used when it was preparing for its LCS contract, one that helped it increase its manpower by 90 percent.

“We’re pretty good at growth and we know how to do it. We’re basically taking our same playbook and doing it again,” Allman says of hiring needs around the MMSC and possible FFG(X) contracts.

In addition, Marinette Marine does extensive outreach beginning in sixth grade with schools in both the Northwoods and the UP. It also offers co-ops and internships, holds job fairs, recruits veterans and works closely with both Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and the University of Wisconsin System to reach college students.

In Door County, Bay Shipbuilding plans to add about 50 skilled workers before the end of the year, primarily in welding and ship-fitting, and plans to grow its engineering, scheduling and manufacturing departments, Thayse says.

The company is working with three teens from local high schools through the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship program and hopes to expand that to accommodate about a dozen, says Ben Wingert, who handles human resources, labor relations and environmental health and safety issues at Bay Shipbuilding. Each apprentice works with the company for about a year.

“The idea is that we can train them while they’re still in high school and that they would come aboard in a permanent full-time capacity following graduation,” Wingert says. “That’s our goal. Sometimes they’ll find work at some other employers, but if we do a good job, we hire them on following their apprenticeship.”

Bay Shipbuilding saw the need to work with the next generation of shipbuilders as more workers retired. It uses a robust in-house training program in welding and structural steel fitting, with two trainers working full time. The training allows the company to ensure new workers have skills specific to the industry and gives them a feel for the rigors of performing the work outside on boats rather than in the climate-controlled environment of a fab shop.

“If somebody applies for a job, we’ll pre-certify them to weld in our facility,” Wingert says. “If they don’t possess the technical acumen to pass a weld test, we will allow them to use our facility, our consumables and have access to our instructors on their own time. Quite a few people take us up on that. Once they’re able to pass their test, we’ll go ahead and offer them a permanent position.”

While Green Bay’s Fincantieri ACE Marine isn’t actively adding workers, it employs about 70 in the region while serving in a support role for Marinette Marine’s LCS construction.

“From the ACE Marine side, because we’ve been relatively steady in our employee levels, we place a lot of benefit on employee retention,” says Jeff Frank, production manager at ACE Marine. “We try to ensure that we provide good benefits, and I think we do that across all three shipyards.”

ACE Marine also has recognized the need to build in flexibility for its employees and offers “soft benefits” to encourage them to stay on, including a four-day workweek and accommodating needs that arise in workers’ personal lives.

“I think with today’s day and age, we have to be somewhat more understanding with what’s being thrown at our employees in life in general,” Frank says.

Support for the industry

Companies within the region’s marine manufacturing industry take part in the North Coast Marine Manufacturing Alliance, an arm of NEWMA, to help promote their businesses and careers through NCMMA activities.

ACE Marine, for example, gives tours to area high schools and in the past has provided materials for high school fab shops. “In return, those teachers are kind of promoting shipbuilding as an industry,” Frank says.

Bay Shipbuilding works with local schools at all levels, Wingert says. “We try to do fun events with some of the elementary schools as well, just to kind of maybe open up younger people’s minds to the idea of a career in manufacturing.”

Melissa Wollering, senior manager of communications and employee engagement for Fincantieri Marine Group, says Bay Shipbuilding also has a longtime partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Door County.  The company brings elementary and middle school kids through the shipyard once or twice a year to show them what shipbuilding is all about and that it’s happening right in their own backyards.

For the last five years, the NCMMA has supported SeaPerch, an underwater robotics competition that helps students learn about robotics and other STEM concepts while building an underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle, or ROV, Franz says.

The NCMMA supports the annual Internship Draft Day, giving members the opportunity to recruit college students, and it participates in the Manufacturing First Expo & Conference in October, which brings in more than 550 regional high school students to talk with employers, who have a chance to showcase in-demand careers. Franz also recently represented the organization at Fort Leonard Wood Army base in Missouri to recruit talent for marine companies.

Last year, the organization partnered with the Wisconsin Technology Education Association to bring in tech ed teachers to tour Marquis Yachts — and get a yacht ride. “We know that tech ed teachers are a huge motivator to students on being interested in manufacturing,” Franz says.

The NCMMA hosts a football-field-sized area of activities at the Tall Ships festival in Green Bay, including a now-hiring booth that promotes careers to an estimated 60,000 visitors. The organization also partners with regional marine builders and NWTC on the Einstein Project and the Door County Maritime Museum.

“A lot of those partner agencies are doing activities for youth and young adults to learn not only about marine careers but also marine manufacturing careers,” Franz says.

Provided it can find the talent it needs, all signs point to a bright future for the marine industry.

“Certainly, Northeast Wisconsin represents quite a hub of shipbuilding,” Thayse of Bay Shipbuilding says. “It’s exciting to be a part of that. There is a lot of manufacturing throughout the United States, but there’s something special, there’s something dynamic about the products that are built in the maritime industry.”