Oregon Shipyard Launches Program to Foster Future Maritime Welding Talent
Part of on-going efforts to grow locally, extend regionally – and beyond
August 1, 2019
To varying degrees, small shipyards play a significant role in the nation's maritime economy. Some smaller yards, however, are gigantic in terms of their value to local and regional enterprises, especially commercial fishing fleets.
The shipyard owned and operated by the Port of Toledo seven miles inland from Oregon's central coast is a prime example.
Another piece of a steadily expanding economic puzzle fell into place for port officials in June, when they received a $261,285 small shipyard grant from the US Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration (MARAD) to establish a credited vocational maritime welding program and training lab at the shipyard's industrial park. Port commissioners invested $87,096 in matching funds to transform an existing space into a 12-bay welding training lab. Grant funds will go toward building improvements and purchasing welding equipment.
The collaborative effort involves the port, Oregon Coast Community College (OCCC), Lincoln County School District (LCSD), and Northwest Oregon Works (NOW), a non-profit organization that invests federal and state funds in workforce development efforts in five Oregon counties. OCCC will oversee the training program, providing curriculum and instructors, and NOW will provide the initial funding for the welding instructors. Initial focus is on developing and providing welding courses, eventually leading to a shipbuilding certificate developed by OCCC in consultation with the port.
"I heard from the industry and community about the need for welding and maritime workforce training," said Birgitte Ryslinge, president of OCCC, noting that the program is part of an effort to bring high-skilled, high-wage jobs to Lincoln County and boost the overall economy. "Through this, we start building, rather than importing, our future maritime industrial workforce."
This project expands the current partnership the port developed with the school district. This past year, high school students from industrial programs in Toledo and Waldport applied for internships at the shipyard. Under supervision by staff and crew, they received hands-on learning about shipyard operations, including welding, painting, and vessel repairs. Port Manager Bud Shoemake deemed the inaugural effort a success, giving credit to the enthusiasm from everyone involved, including vessel owners. The federal grant – one of 28 awarded to small ports throughout the nation – will enhance and extend the program to students from all six county high schools, as well as to adult learners from throughout the county.
"The welding lab will provide students at the other high schools the same opportunity to participate in industrial training, and partnering with OCCC opens the program to everyone else in the county," Shoemake said, noting that the lab would provide "practical shipyard welding experience."
The lab will open to Newport, Siletz, and Eddyville high school students in September 2019 through the OCCC program. The existing welding program involving Toledo and Waldport high school students will continue, because they can take introductory welding training at their schools to qualify for the internships. Funding from the school district will also allow OCCC instructors to teach welding classes at Taft High School in Lincoln City during after-school hours. Karen Gray, LCSAD's superintendent, said the district wants to promote future success for all students by providing funds and resources "to expand career and technical education programs to support students and workforce development for our communities and families."
Heather DeSart, executive director of NOW, said the program "is a perfect example of one cost-effective collaboration to directly benefit employers and local industry, while arming participants with real-world, career-ready skills."
Those skills translate into an experienced workforce that can boost productivity and enhance the economy locally and regionally, with a potential ripple effect beyond.
River, Railroad, Roadway
Shoemake said the port's key role is economic development for the region, especially in traditional industries like commercial fisheries.
Operating since 1910, the port's main focal point is Toledo's waterfront on Depot Slough, a longtime haven for commercial moorage and marine-related businesses catering to the needs of commercial fishermen. In December 2010 – a century after its inception – port officials took a calculated risk by purchasing the former Fred Wahl boatyard at Sturgeon Bend on the Yaquina River. Wahl shut down the facility in 2008 after nearly a decade on a 20-acre slice of land near the city of Toledo. The dwindling number of haul-outs along Oregon's coast and decline in private boatyards provided the impetus for Port of Toledo officials to pursue the purchase.
Since 2013, Shoemake, port commissioners and staff have guided a build-out plan and revitalization effort that replaced an aging, failing dry dock capable of handling only one vessel at a time with a 660-ton mobile lift and piers that allow boatyard crews to haul out and work on several vessels of varying size at the same time; added a new wash-down pad; expanded hard moorage spaces; and created a cargo transfer area by relocating the boatyard's access road and utilities. The final piece of the initial plan involved adding an immense airtight, watertight, climate-controlled work building to allow boatyard work year-round, regardless of weather conditions.
Rear Admiral Mark Buzby, MARAD's administrator, said that "small shipyards are an irreplaceable aspect of America's shipbuilding industry. They are a key component to national security and our economic viability as a whole, providing good jobs for hardworking Americans."
Shoemake wholeheartedly agrees.
Since initiating the revitalization project, the port's rejuvenated shipyard has forged a reputation as one of Oregon's premier vessel service and repair facilities.
"We can handle all of our local fleet and anything else that can navigate the river to the boatyard," Shoemake said. "This is an important facility. Without it, the central coast economy would lose millions of dollars in economic opportunity every year."
The port itself has experienced a boom, now boasting a staff of 40 – most of them from the Oregon coast – that at one time had shriveled to just three.
Oregon transportation officials say the port and shipyard are ideally situated at an intersection of river, railroad and roadway.
They consider the port and its boatyard essential to maintaining Oregon's economic competitiveness by keeping commercial fishing and research vessels shipshape and seaworthy, and connections to markets intact and fully functional. While commercial fishing fortunes ebb and flow, the industry remains a viable piece of Oregon's coastal and state economy.
This project makes Toledo's shipyard and related marine businesses even more valuable to the industry.
Fishermen say they like having the option on the easily navigated, well-marked Yaquina River. Being close to homeport is a bonus for the Newport-based fleet, the "do-it-yourself" shipyard provides access to a group of preferred independent contractors, offering more than 40 licensed businesses and marine vendors. Shoemake said they provide maintenance for "a large number of distant-water vessels that fish from the South Pacific to the Bering Sea." He noted that Newport offers the fish processing plants, plenty of moorage at its docks, and staging areas at its International Terminal, while Toledo operates "one of the only shipyards in Oregon where they can actually haul boats out of the water." Their respective locations create a symbiotic relationship that translates into more work for the Toledo shipyard.
The project has made port officials acutely aware of the critical need for a skilled maritime workforce.
With almost 19,000 workers and average wages exceeding most other industries, labor analysts say Oregon's maritime sector supports numerous family-wage jobs in Oregon. They anticipate new jobs and a need for more workers in the years ahead. Unfortunately, Oregon's maritime workforce is aging, and many current workers are expected to retire or change careers within the next 10 years, creating additional openings for new workers.
It's a conundrum for maritime employers like the Port of Toledo.
"Finding prospective employees with the required work or trade school experience has always been a challenge," said Shoemake, acknowledging the aging workforce and "a critical shortage of welders," not only in Oregon but throughout the nation. Except for the port's current efforts to provide a shipyard workplace education resource, no programs are offered anywhere on Oregon's central coast, which greatly limits the qualified labor pool.
Oregon's federal and state legislators say the Transportation Department grant and other resources for the port's training lab are critical to maritime professional development and ensuring that Oregon's fishery fleet has access to quality shipyard facilities close to home.
"The Port of Toledo plays a key role in supporting the Oregon Coast's largest fishing fleet," US Senator Ron Wyden said. "These resources will help boats in the Newport area get repairs close to home, building on the port's capacity to create jobs."
"Creating training opportunities for shipyard jobs means a stronger and more prosperous Oregon coast," said US Senator Jeff Merkley. "Those shipyards are critical to keep our ports humming. Work in shipyards building and repairing boats are the kind of great jobs that people can raise their families on."
"Continued investment in our coastal and rural communities is critical to ensuring folks get the technical training that they need to make a living wage and fully participate in their local economies," noted US Representative Kurt Schrader.
Shoemake and the port commissioners are always looking toward the next steps in the port's and the shipyard's evolution.
Port officials are moving forward with a five-year plan focused on additional investments in the shipyard's infrastructure, promoting job growth and long-term employment opportunities, community outreach and support for maritime skills development and education, along with a more active and outgoing approach to marketing.
Word of mouth among fishermen is priceless, and the shipyard has turned into a bustling, busy place, but Shoemake said he realizes they must eventually turn to advertising and marketing, despite the fact that the maritime industry "does not widely promote itself." Tourism gets most of the attention along Oregon's central coast, even though market analysis points to the Commercial Maritime industry as a key source of revenue, and Toledo harbors a proud maritime tradition.
Shoemake realizes that big important changes most often occur locally.
"If our port can affect change in the most positive manner possible, that will translate up to the Oregon coast and eventually to the industry at large," he said, noting that the port has historically operated on a think globally, act locally strategy – a tradition that isn't about to change. Along with keeping a weather eye out for additional ways to enhance the port's capabilities and extend its influence, Shoemake anticipates hiring a few more employees for the port by 2020.
It's also highly likely that some – perhaps many - future employees will derive from the welding training program.