By Joe Garvey

Hampton Roads is dealing with a maritime workforce shortage.

Mike Robinson, the Maritime Industrial Base Ecosystem (MIBE) executive director and chief operations officer of Old Dominion University’s Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC), points to statistics in a report compiled by McKinsey & Company:

  • An investment of $20 million-$30 million is needed to address the workforce gap over the next few years.
  • Over the next 12 months, Hampton Roads needs 10,000 more skilled maritime workers.
  • It will cost $300 million to build the maritime workforce to where it needs to be by 2030.

“There have to be ways to beat this,” Robinson said.

Toward that end, MIBE and VMASC initiated the Maritime Trades Magnet Project with funding from the U.S. Department of Education.

The program launched this spring with 12 high schools in six local school divisions – Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Hampton and Newport News – plus New Horizons Career and Technical Education Center in Hampton. The program, which is for sophomores, juniors and seniors, will continue through the fall of 2023. It combines online tutorials and hands-on instruction.

Though initial plans aimed to reach 120 students, Robinson said he now expects the program to attract more than 600 students by the end of the calendar year. 

“The school systems in Hampton Roads are eager to do this and eager to bring it to their students,” Robinson said.

The schools received advanced manufacturing training equipment, including 3D printers, CNC mills, robotic arms and vehicles, and Raspberry Pi computing kits. Curricula providing tutorials on equipment use and examples are provided online, free for public use. The primary goal of the program is to interest students in the highly skilled industrial trades required for advanced manufacturing.

But the project isn’t just for young people already on a career/technical track. A key aspect is to increase the number of participants by working with mainstream-course educators – along with career and technical education teachers – on how to best implement the program.

“The intent was to encourage more of those (mainstream) students to consider careers in maritime skilled trades,” Robinson explained. “When we met with the leading CTE educators from around the region in the fall, they told us they really liked what we had provided, they appreciated all of the materials that we were giving them. But those were not going to be very helpful in growing the size of the labor pool. They said, ‘Our students have already decided to pursue careers in skilled trades.’”

Jessica Johnson, research assistant professor and director of STEM and student engagement at VMASC, worked on curriculum development for the program. Jason Dudley, MIBE’s talent pipeline training coordinator, set up equipment and helped train educators. VMASC’s Hector Garcia and BaTo Cvijetic developed the videos.

While some program participants will likely opt to pursue a college degree, the goal is that others will pursue positions with maritime industry employers straight out of high school.

“Our hope is that some of them will say, ‘You know, I decided that working with my hands in a skilled trade is really what I’d like to do,’” Robinson said.

“Because if we don’t take care of those companies, if we don’t keep them properly manned with personnel, we could lose them.”