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New Kids on The Dock

prm_Port Townsend Maritime Academy firefighting_Northwest Maritime Center copy

It’s no secret that there’s a skilled labor shortage. The Washington state maritime industry decided to do something about it by tackling the problem at the source.

Who killed shop class? It’s a question that’s plaguing schools around the country. Remember shop class, also called woodshop? It’s where young people donned protective glasses and learned how to plane wood and use a bandsaw, among other skills. Essentially, it was hands-on learning—and it was as prevalent in public schools as math or science.

Experts are calling the mass exodus of aging skilled laborers from the boating industry a ­“silver tsunami.” How do we combat such a phenomenon? Without garnering the experience to build things using your own two hands, and without the proper motivation to even pick up a hammer, it will surely be difficult. If we want to ensure a legacy of skilled workers, we need to provide young people with a roadmap to success. Along Washington’s Puget Sound, a rich heritage of boatbuilding has embraced these principles and found a way to make skilled labor interesting. That’s welcome news, as we look to a future where young people regard trade school experience with the same prestige as a college education.

There are very few jobs out there were you get to create something that is both functional and beautiful.

There are very few jobs out there were you get to create something that is both functional and beautiful.

Maritime High School: If You Build It, They Will Learn

The most direct way to expand opportunities for young people entering the skilled trades is also the boldest—build an entirely new school centered around a maritime curriculum. Enter Maritime High School, a collaboration between the Seattle area’s Highline Public Schools, Port of Seattle, Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and others. The new school welcomed its inaugural class of ninth grade students this fall.

“Being a math major myself, I’ve always had aspirations to work at a school focused on STEM [science, technology, engineering and math],” says Tremain Holloway, Maritime High School’s first principal. Holloway has five years of Highline Public Schools administrator experience and a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is also a father of two students enrolled in Highline Public Schools.

“There are an exorbitant amount of folks retiring out of the marine industry,” says Holloway. “There are many opportunities for our younger folks to come in and [land] some very lucrative jobs.”

Maritime High School education will focus on the environment, marine sciences and maritime careers with an emphasis on hands-on projects and experiential learning both on and off the water. The school plans to incorporate workforce internships for juniors and seniors to set students up for success in their chosen maritime careers.

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While currently housed at an interim site, Maritime High School will ultimately be located at a permanent location in industrial South Seattle. The Duwamish River, the aquatic aorta of South Seattle’s beating industrial heart, will serve as a real-world classroom. South Seattle is one of the most racially diverse regions of the country. The 2010 Census reported that South Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood was the No. 1 most racially diverse zip code in the U.S. “I lead with three things in mind. First is equity; that’s the core,” says Holloway. He quotes from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “How can I be like me when I don’t see me?” “Second is excellence, so when it comes to academics we know students are getting the best. The third is entrepreneurship, basically innovative and creative thinking.”

For Holloway, it’s much bigger than boats. “The ocean is vast with many opportunities. It’s time for the youth and their families of South Seattle to have access to these opportunities. We’re surrounded by the water here in Washington, right next to Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. We have what we need.”

Core Plus Curriculum: Regaining Lost Ground

While shop classes might be disappearing from schools, Core Plus is a statewide career and technical education program founded by Seattle-area industry leaders and educators explicitly to bring back the industrial arts. Leading the charge from the trenches is Tory Gering, Program Manager for the nonprofit Manufacturers Industrial Council (MIC) of Seattle and Core Plus Maritime.

“A lot of leaders in academics don’t value shop class like they should, seeing it as a waste of money and space,” Gering says. “I refuse to give up the term ‘shop.’ Some people say things like, ‘It’s hands-on STEM labs’ or what have you. But to me, it’s shop. And it’s important.”

Core Plus supports three curricula that are free for participating schools: construction, aerospace and maritime. Partners include Boeing, MIC Seattle, Associated General Contractors (AGC) of Washington Education Foundation and the Washington Office Superintendent of Public Instruction. The backing of these public and private sector juggernauts translates to robust support for Core Plus students and instructors. “The beautiful thing about Core Plus is that we are in existing schools,” says Gering. “This is a program that’s free for public school students in their high school years. Core Plus is basically a curriculum with a support network attached to it. You’re giving them skills, hard and soft. We’re the bridge to careers from K-12. We help you find that next step, whatever it may be.”

Gering’s eyes light up when she talks about success stories. The coastal Native American communities are very responsive to Core Plus Maritime, notably the Makah tribe based around Neah Bay that has a strong seagoing culture. (Makah students talk about filleting halibut as a household chore.) Core Plus connects tribal heritage with the 21st century marine industry.

Gering talks fondly of a recent Core Plus Maritime alum who worked at sea on the Gulf of Mexico as a member of the Pacific Sailor’s Union. The graduate plans to pursue his 200-ton captain’s ticket and engineer’s credentials to take his mariner career to the next level.

Tacoma Boat Builders: Mentoring the Marginalized

American life is hard for youth on the wrong side of the tracks, especially when they start interacting more with the juvenile detention system than the school system. Interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline is Tacoma Boat Builders (TBB), a nonprofit that aims to create opportunities for marginalized and court-involved youth with mentorship, woodworking and boatbuilding. “The boats are a means to an end,” says TBB Executive Director Dr. Shannon A. Shea, who lives aboard a 50-year-old custom wooden boat. “The boats allow us to create a space with these youth unlike ways they’ve experienced elsewhere.”

TBB originated from organization founder, boatwright, business owner and proud Tacoma resident Paul Birkey. He started out walking the docks with a toolbox, but his career took him to the pinnacle of his craft through his Tacoma-based company, Belina Interiors. Belina was contracted to design, build and install the custom yacht interiors for the famous Delta Marine superyachts. TBB became a reality thanks to partnering Puget Sound boatbuilders, sailors and youth educators with the Pierce County Juvenile Court system. The first cohort of six at-risk youth and a few volunteer mentors came to the shop in 2014. Birkey remains a board member and mentor-craftsman with TBB.

“By all means we’re getting tools in these kids’ hands,” said Dr. Shannon A. Shea (middle), executive director of Tacoma Boat Builders. “But we also want them to advocate for themselves, to feel confident regardless of what they end up doing.”

“By all means we’re getting tools in these kids’ hands,” said Dr. Shannon A. Shea (middle), executive director of Tacoma Boat Builders. “But we also want them to advocate for themselves, to feel confident regardless of what they end up doing.”

“We teach our youth how to be useful by being useful to them,” says Dr. Shea. TBB works with young men and women who are in dependency, i.e. in the protection of the state like foster care. Pre-diversion youth who set off a blip on the disciplinary radar with
something like a fight at school are also common. Dr. Shea explains that in the modern school environment, where most kids are carrying electronics and property damage over $700 triggers criminal repercussions, throwing someone’s smartphone across a cafeteria during a confrontation quickly triggers criminal-level offenses.

“The stories I regularly hear of bullying and heavy-handed punishments over phones are heartbreaking,” says Dr. Shea. “We also serve youth facing felony charges who are at-risk of short- or long-term incarceration. The program is designed to help young people realize they belong in their community.”

TBB is based out of a woodshop on Tacoma’s Thea Foss Waterway, a working waterfront that’s a port of call for a range of boats from commercial tugs to luxury yachts. The calming scent of freshly cut wood permeates the walls. Newly varnished canoes shine on stands. Before every session, the mentors and students gather around a large compass rose on the floor to center themselves. Even as a visitor, one feels safe and part of something bigger.

A young man involved with TBB reflects on his time at the shop: “Going into the program I wasn’t in a good place, but I had a pretty good work ethic. The program helped tie it together more and gave it structure. I think that helped me mature and grow more into the person I am today.”

“TBB helped me find a new skill that I didn’t know I needed—woodworking,” says the young man. “That opened things up … it sparked an ingenuity thing in my mind and just wanting to build and make and create with wood or metal.”

“The boat shop programs we offer open portals,” says Dr. Shea. A common misconception for the kids is to regard water-based recreation and careers as solely available to rich folks. But TBB continues to grow and now cites 28 active volunteer mentors and 632 youth participants since its inception. The kids get to choose what activity to undertake in the afternoon. Piling into a rowboat and having fun together on the water is a popular choice. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.