As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats, and the North Coast Marine Manufacturing Alliance launched 10 years ago on that very premise.
In 2010, shipbuilders Fincantieri Marinette Marine and Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding, yacht makers Cruiser Yachts and Marquis Yachts, and boat builder Burger Boat faced a shared problem: attracting and retaining a skilled workforce. Though the companies competed with one another, whether for workers or market share, they decided to come together to pursue solutions that would benefit all.
The businesses began with reaching out to Northeast Wisconsin Technical College to develop curriculum specific to the marine industry. From there, NWTC President Jeff Rafn devised the idea of creating an alliance that would go beyond developing curriculum and a short-term solution and instead build a long-term partnership. The alliance was modeled on the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, which had already built a successful track record.
“Having an organization to promote that specific sector is really important,” says NEWMA Executive Director Ann Franz, who also oversees the NCMMA.
Like NEWMA, the NCMMA focuses on workforce, but unlike NEWMA, it also includes a supply chain focus. The marine organization created a supply chain task force, and each October it holds an Associate Member Expo in which companies that want to do business with marine builders can set up one-on-one meetings.
Franz says the outreach creates awareness about suppliers closer to businesses, and the scale of multiple companies joining together can create a chance for businesses to collaborate to purchase a large quantity of goods.
As for workforce, Josh Delforge, senior vice president and general manager of Marquis Yachts in Pulaski, says it’s the issue that made him and the company want to get involved with the alliance. In 2010, all companies in the industry were facing the same situation of an aging workforce.
“Knowing that retirements were on the horizon, we needed to start generating a pool of workers that we could pull from that could come in and contribute,” he says.
The alliance has tackled the workforce issue with several efforts, including outreach to K-12 schools, partnerships with higher education and increasing awareness of the industry through involvement with events like the Tall Ships Festival, which is held every third summer in Green Bay and Sturgeon Bay, most recently in 2019.
The success of the latter, which features historic replica ships, surprised Franz. The multi-day event draws tens of thousands of visitors. In 2016 and 2019, the NCMMA scored a position at the entrance of the festival, where it could spotlight careers and shipbuilders as well as partner organizations, including the Einstein Project, NWTC and nonprofit organization Hands on Deck.
“You just have no idea how many people you’re really impacting with that number of people coming through,” Franz says.
For educational outreach, in addition to visiting schools and hosting plant tours, the alliance and businesses have hosted SeaPerch competitions in which middle school students build and put to the test underwater remotely operated vehicles.
More than 300 students have participated over the years. The event is held each February at a pool, and it draws students from all over the region, including Marinette, Door County, Brillion, Seymour and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The Einstein Project, housed within the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s STEM Innovation Center, has taken over coordinating the event for the alliance, and throughout the years, several teams have advanced to the national competition.
“What’s great about the program is, besides building the robot and being able to compete with the robot in the water, (students) also have to give a presentation,” which helps build important communication skills, Franz says.
Delforge says he hopes the industry will see the positive outcomes of the work. “Our hope really is, we started reaching out to the middle schoolers and high schoolers six, seven years ago, so they’re all graduating. That was our hope, was to lay the foundation, and now we’ll start to see if we’ll see any of those students that we’ve touched come back.”
Positioning for the future
No victory could have been sweeter for the region in the 10th-anniversary year of the NCMMA than FMM winning the $800 million contract to build the Navy’s new guided missile frigate. If all options are exercised, the cumulative value of the contract would be $5.5 billion.
The contract, secured in May, was a win not just for the company but the entire region. All three Fincantieri businesses — which also include Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay and Ace Marine in Green Bay — will help fulfill the contract, and regional suppliers also will benefit.
“With that activity, that expands out into our supply chain to hundreds of suppliers that those shipbuilders need just to supply the parts and components that go into the ship,” says Meridith Jaeger, dean of corporate training and economic development for NWTC.
FMM expects to hire an additional 1,000 workers to help it fulfill the contract. As it seeks to do so, it will look to NWTC’s North Coast Marine Manufacturing Training Center in Marinette to train workers. The center has served more than 11,000 individuals since opening in 2012. Training has continued to take place around the clock throughout the pandemic.
The facility offers training in welding, pipefitting and shipfitting and has an electrical lab that’s wired with components for the FMM-built littoral combat ship — it will soon transition to components for the frigate. It’s also finishing a new welding lab that will add 10 welding booths, with the addition slated to open this month.
The center trains new employees as well as incumbent workers who need refreshers or upskilling. Other shipbuilders beyond FMM, as well as contractors, suppliers and vendors from all over the country, also use the facility.
“That’s what’s really cool is that it’s not company specific. It is industry specific,” Jaeger says.
Melissa Wollering, senior manager of communications and employee engagement for Fincantieri Marine Group, serves on the NCMMA leadership team. She says the alliance has done invaluable work that has paid off for her company, which is always recruiting for jobs from skills trades to engineering.
“We have successfully been able to recruit more,” she says of the NCMMA’s efforts. “The North Coast Marine Manufacturing Alliance has been that mouthpiece that was missing.”