Susan Swanton has been executive director of the Maine Marine Trades Association for 17 years, focusing on advancing the industry in Maine – which includes boat builders, boatyards and related businesses – and providing training for employees. She started in the industry at Rumery’s Boatyard in Biddeford in 1979 and ran service departments in several boatyards around southern Maine before becoming the executive director.

“I’m an old boatyard girl and happy not to be crawling in bilges any more at my age,” she said. On Friday, she will be at the White House, discussing President Obama’s effort to get companies and industries to hire more long-term unemployed workers.

Q: What does your association do?

A: We focus on three things: We work with our members to deliver training programs, and a lot of that is bringing the certification programs to Maine. It used to be that each individual company sent its employees out of state for that training, and we were able to get the companies together and started requesting that the instructors come to us, which makes it much more accessible. We’ve kind of developed a reputation now in the industry and in the country as being very committed to that continuing education.

We also work on dealing with the regulators. OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the DEP (Maine Department of Environmental Protection) are two big regulators of this industry and we have really taken it as our charge to work with those agencies and stay on top of what they require us to do. We also pay attention to what’s going on in Augusta and down in Washington that might be of interest to us and we do our best to try to promote our industry.

Q: Who are your members and how many employees are there in the industry in Maine?

A: Our membership is very diverse. The core is the boatyards, the builders, the marinas and the dealers, but we also have sail makers and naval architects and all of the parts of the supply chain. We do cover the waterfront, if you will.

The estimate is that there are 6,800 total jobs, direct and indirect, related to marine trades in Maine.

Q: How is the industry doing?

A: We travel with the economy, just like everybody else. A lot of business comes from the recreational sector and that’s discretionary spending. People who have boats for recreational purposes don’t have to have those boats and our fishing fleet is smaller than it used to be. As we’ve lost fishing boats over the years, we’ve been able to have recreational boaters replace them, but the last few years of the Great Recession have not been kind to anybody. It’s starting to change now. Also, even those companies that might identify as manufacturers as opposed to custom builders, many of those boats are still built to order.

At the worst part of the recession, some of our builders took orders from high-end customers and then saw those orders go away. A lot of buyers said they were doing OK themselves, but they just laid off 100 people at their business and said they couldn’t, with a clear conscience, go out and buy a boat. But it’s definitely coming back.

Q: How is the industry helping the long-term unemployed and what got you invited to the White House?

A: When you say “long-term unemployed” to a business person, they often think of the chronically unemployed, but the president is talking about those people who have always worked and because the economy went bad, they’re still out of work. These are people who have some skills but maybe they don’t have the right skills for a different part of the workforce. So it’s an effort to get our heads together and get those people back in the workforce.

One of the things that’s really popular now in the area of workforce development is the notion of industry-led sector partnerships, and we have a very successful sector partnership here in Maine. We (the marine trades) always have training needs, so in 2006, there was a grant program offered to sector partnerships to develop training programs. In Maine, the decision was made to focus on boat building and marine trades and composites manufacturing. We got a grant for $14.4 million and we trained nearly 2,000 people – incumbent workers, new hires, educators and some high school teachers because there are some high schools with boat building programs or training in marine mechanics. There was a fairly significant outreach effort, building a career awareness campaign. There was a lot of stuff that we were able to accomplish and it was the industry saying, “This is what we need and this is how it should work.” It’s about up-skilling and keeping up with technology. Technology in an industry like this changes quickly and if you don’t stay on top of those technological changes, how do you serve your customers?

Q: Why do you think that approach worked?

A: What was really important was that it was all about the businesses and what they needed. If a business has an opportunity to say to a training provider, “This is what I need from my employees,” then things work and the jobs are more secure, the people who take those jobs can feel more comfortable that there’s some life there, that it’s not going to be, “I’m here for a short while and then I’m gone.” Employers are very happy to provide good raises to employees after they completed those training programs and that’s so huge and important today. It made people more secure in their jobs and they felt it was a real career with room for advancement in terms of skill and what comes at the end of the week in terms of a paycheck.

In our industry, we take care of our workers and a lot of these yards function very much like families because our boatyards tend to be pretty small. Our biggest companies are well under 200 employees for the most part and the bulk of them are probably 25 and under. When our businesses find a really good employee, they tend to hold onto those people.

Q: How does it feel to be headed to the White House? Did you drop little hints at the grocery store, such as, “I better eat this fruit quick, since I’ll be at the White House Friday?”

A: No, but I’m still more than a little dumbstruck. The way they found me is through an association with an organization called the National Skills Coalition, which has really focused all of its efforts on middle-skilled jobs – jobs that require something more than a high school diploma and less than a four-year degree, and that’s what a lot of the jobs in our industry are. The president, I think, has recognized that these jobs are important to individuals and the companies they work for, and important to our economy.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com