North Country Assemblywoman tours St. Lawrence River towns to discuss collaboration
Sunday, May 20, 2018 - 5:18 pm

Assemblywoman Addie A.E. Jenne, D-Theresa, said she is excited to see what will result from a collaboration between SUNY Maritime College, SUNY Canton, Jefferson Community College and Jefferson-Lewis BOCES to develop programs to train students for careers in maritime fields.

She added she was also thrilled when SUNY Maritime College Provost Dr. Joseph Hoffman suggested professionals from the school might travel to communities along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario in St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties and then prepare a report on the region's waterfront infrastructure needs.

The takeaways came after Assemblywoman Jenne led a two-day tour of maritime businesses and agencies in communities bordering Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

She was joined on the tour by Dr. Hoffman, Workforce Development Institute North Country Regional Director Greg Hart, and The Jefferson County Work Place Executive Director Cheryl Mayforth. Local officials also joined the group at various stops on the tour.

The final stop of the tour was at the Bonnie Castle Resort Marina in Alexandria Bay, where Norm Hutchinson, who has worked at the marina for the past 35 years, underscored the challenges of finding mechanics, machinists, upholsters and other professionals able to work on boats.

Hutchinson and his crew were busy pulling boats out of storage and putting them back in the water for the upcoming season.

He noted the ice only left the bay two weeks ago, meaning work to move the boats from storage to the water was way behind schedule. But while his crew was busy moving boats, the various maintenance shops at the marina were empty.

Hutchinson said he now farms out much of the work brought to the marina shop.

The employee responsible for designing boat lettering and graphics is a full-time elementary school teacher who only does boat work on weekends and during her summer vacation. 

A former mechanic at the marina now works full-time on helicopters at Fort Drum and does boat work nights at his home garage. 

"There is a lot of opportunity. We just don't have the people. We don't have the old guard working anymore. Mechanically, I could take on a lot of work, but I've only got one Merc certified mechanic, [and] one guy that works on props ...," he noted.

"Years ago there were 40, 45 employees here. Right now we have 15. One guy has been with us for 40 years, another guy 25 years. We need younger workers big-time. That's the thing we don't have," Hutchinson added.

He said the lack of a skilled workforce impacts the operation. 

"When you start losing your old-timers, you have two choices: send your customers' work somewhere else or don't do the work," he noted.

Hutchinson said, for example, there is only one person in Alexandria Bay that works on the boats’ HVAC systems. It's even more difficult to find employees that work on boat generators or are trained aluminum welders.

He pointed out he put out an employee wanted advertisement for a marine mechanic earlier this year and had no response. He said he was aware of two other marinas in the area that were also looking for mechanics and had similar responses.

It was a story Assemblywoman Jenne said she and others taking part in he two-day tour heard at several stops along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

"This is just one village. A lot of it has to do with our workforce. MetalCraft in Cape Vincent has 13 employees, but they have to send their paint work back to Kingston, (Ont.) and their metal bending to Watertown," Assemblywoman Jenne said.

"The work is here, but we aren't training our workforce for some of the jobs that are available. One of the themes we heard was these businesses need their employees to be able to do a lot of different things -– a mechanic, a carpenter, a welder -– if they want to be able to work year-round," she said.

"We need to take a multi-disciplinary approach to training people for jobs in the maritime sector, whether it be working on the boats or working in the hospitality and tourism industries. We need to ramp up that training," she added.

Hoffman indicated the educators that participated in the tour had heard the message about the industry's training needs.

"Addie has really challenged me. We are looking at ways we can use our expertise and bring it to your communities. We are working to engage with SUNY Canton, Jefferson Community College, BOCES, the high schools. I've been charged with developing a plan," he said.

Hoffman suggested, for example, the schools could work together on a program that allows students to earn certificates for taking some classes, obtain licensure if they took additional classes and earn an associate's degree and have the opportunity to go on to SUNY Maritime to earn a bachelor's degree.

The discussion also focused on the need to connect maritime businesses with educators to expand apprenticeship and internship opportunities.

Assemblywoman Jenne said another portion of the tour was aimed at gaining a better understanding of the infrastructure improvements needed to grow the region's maritime economy.

She said several communities on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River have done multiple waterfront development studies.

Hoffman pointed out that SUNY Maritime College faculty members, like their peers at other SUNY institutions, are required to fulfill scholarship requirements.

"We have two faculty members, for example, who have been involved in helping re-develop the Port of New York for the past 20 years. We are always looking for another opportunity. They also like to write grants," he pointed out.

Hoffman said he could send a couple of faculty members to the North Country to tour the region, from the lake to the locks, and then develop a report on infrastructure needs.

Assemblywoman Jenne said that as she continues to reflect on the tour she expects to develop additional enrichment and training opportunities for young people.