Finding new workers must start at the heart, not the head

Nov 8, 2016 by Lucy Chabot Reed

Parents always want to give their kids a better life than they had. My dad worked with his hands and went on to start his own small business. My mom, after 10 years having and taking care of babies, worked in data entry and went on to manage her division.

For my parents — immigrants to the U.S. who didn’t waste a thing — the goal for their kids was college. Not that we couldn’t work with our hands if we wanted to — my dad never squashed any crazy adventure any of us entertained — but having that degree was an accomplishment, and no one could ever take that education away from us.

It was a wonderful way to believe, and to grow up. Most of my siblings and I have a college education and have gone on to have pretty cool and productive lives.

How do we top that? Seriously, how do I give my daughter a better life? If college was the goal for my generation, where does the next generation go? Advanced degrees (and the debt they entail)? High political office? Starting and owning something bigger than a small business?

I wonder if it isn’t time to step sideways and redefine what it means to be educated. Show me a mom who has successfully raised kids and run a household and I’ll show you a woman who can run just about any office.

It comes down to skills. I was lucky that my chosen degree was a hands-on, skills-driven career. And I believe, as my dad always said, no one can take that away from me. But too much of what passes for college education has little to do with skills and leaves our kids not really trained to do much. Just look at any number of studies that show how few of us college graduates actually work in our studied field.

All this came to me as I sat in a luncheon hosted by the Marine Industries Association of South Florida recently. “Tools to Build the Workforce of Tomorrow” talked about the aging craftsmen in the marine industry, and the struggles businesses face in not only recruiting young kids to take their places, but to get them to work patiently at something that takes years to master.

The panel gathered a staffing agent, an educator, a business manager and a union guy to come up with some solutions. Key among them was that we need to make sure middle and high school kids know about our industry and the great jobs and careers that can be had here.

Several programs have started doing that. The Marine Industry Cares Foundation raises money all year to put kids through a two-week summer camp that takes them around the industry to see boats being built, equipment being serviced, workers doing their jobs. MIASF staff interview kids and personally find them internships, one at a time.

Yard worker. Photo by Dorie Cox

Yard worker. Photo by Dorie Cox

But I get the sense that too many people — educators especially — see “the trades” as a suitable career path only for the kids who can’t get into college. I wonder if we shouldn’t encourage all our kids to consider working with their hands, actually producing and fixing stuff that people can use, as a viable career. It takes brains and smarts to work on boats, since so many things rely on each other and one simple mistake — one nut not tight enough or one wire crossed — can have catastrophic consequences.

One panelist said that to entice young people we have to outline the earnings potential, and cross that with the lack of college debt they’ll have. I say we have to start not with money but with drive. We have to find the kids who like boats and boating, who would rather spend a day fiddling with them and thinking about them than sitting in a chilly classroom reading about something else. And those kids aren’t necessarily the ones who are failing out of high school.

South Florida offers one of the best places in the world to study and work in the marine industry. A half million vessels traverse our waters each year, and about 136,000 people are employed in it, earning a higher-than-state-average wage. All told, the marine industry here contributes something more than $11 billion a year to the economy of South Florida.

Sure, college is a great path. The world needs lawyers and doctors. But I’m encouraging my daughter to do what interests her, find people who interest her, study and read what interests her. She’s crafty and clever, and I have no doubt she’ll get her education.

I guess my point is, we must all encourage our kids to get an education in something that makes them happy. That way, not only can no one ever take it from them, learning and working will never feel like work.

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher and founding editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.


About Lucy Chabot Reed

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher and founding editor of The Triton.

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