A rising economic tide could float all boats, and the marine industry
By Cara Boruch-Dolan
In an area where boats are almost as common as cars, South Florida has become a nautical epicenter for those seeking marine recreation and maintenance.
However, economic factors have becalmed Miami's marine industry in a "holding pattern," said Fran Bohnsack, executive director of the Miami River Marine Group. Many companies, she said, are only recently building momentum after suffering from job loss and construction issues along the Miami River.
"The group I work with deals with international trade, as well as cargo and repair, all of which have been hurt by the recession," said Ms. Bohnsack.
A 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics census calculated that the marine industry in Florida lost more than 4,500 jobs since 2008, with the Miami metropolitan area losing 744 of them.
"Trade is the indicator in general of how business within the industry is doing," said Ms. Bohnsack, who called the current trade market "static" due to the shallow draft in the recently dredged Miami River and construction congestion along the waterway.
However, she said that both Miami River construction and real estate issues have turned out for the better considering that buyers new to the area have shown interest in learning the marine industry and expanding upon it.
Future development along the river and Port of Miami would also adversely affect business for that industry, Ms. Bohnsack said of such projects as the RailAmerica line. If approved for its grant funding, the rail tracks will extend into Dodge Island, downtown Miami and Hialeah and increase Miami's cargo business.
John Spencer, president of Spencer Boat Co., recently established a shipyard and repair center to replace the longstanding Merrill-Stevens yard, which closed in 2009.
"Business is above my original projections," said Mr. Spencer of his initial year.
Having opened in January, he took it upon himself to rehire all 20 staff members that Merrill-Stevens laid off in December.
Even though he said this is the slower part of the year for the marine industry, Mr. Spencer said he plans to expand his business even further.
"I probably shouldn't say this because people are going to call me like crazy, but if everything goes as planned, I'm anticipating adding five to six more people in the next couple months," he said.
While the entire marine industry might not have rebounded completely, Mr. Spencer said his company has consistent work planned into the fall.
"My business is based on estimates, and I can tell you that I've had more inquiries recently compared to that from a year and a half ago," he said.
To stay current with marine technology, he said his workers constantly participate in training programs for products that require a special applicatory process.
However, those in the industry agree skilled marine workers remain in short supply.
To fuel South Florida companies eager for well-trained workers, Broward College started the Marine Center of Excellence in 2008, said Oscar Vargas, marketing and advertising specialist.
"[Marine companies] were the ones who came to us and asked us to tailor a program when they noticed our auto program was becoming so successful," said Mr. Vargas. "So we tailored it to be like the automotive program."
According to the Broward College Web site, the Marine Engineering Management program is an accredited 24-month program for those seeking an Associates of Science degree.
Broward College is certified by the American Boat and Yacht Council and is one of seven marine training centers nationally, Mr. Vargas said.
Since 2008, enrollment has consistently increased, he said. Of the 77 students now enrolled, he said, about 20% live in Miami-Dade.
The program has become especially popular with marine companies seeking interns, he said, with 85% of those in program attaining internships within the past year.
It's not uncommon for interns to make $25 an hour for specialized work, said Mr. Vargas; they make $8 per hour minimum.
He said the marine industry is still lucrative and workers can easily make more than $1,000 in a weekend full of work.
"Business in Miami is picking up," said Mr. Vargas, "because I've spoken with some of the marinas and they have positions open."
He attributes students' post-graduation success to the fact that the program offers companies highly-skilled workers with a degree.
While many students are college age, he said, there has been an increase in night classes of older workers already in the industry.
Broward College started its night program a year and a half ago and will have its first class graduate this December, Mr. Vargas said. With only 25 students allowed in the class, he said, a waiting list had to be created due to overflow for January registration.
Mr. Vargas cited plans to expand the Marine Center for Excellence campus, which sits off Riviera Boulevard in Miramar.
Construction has been approved for adding classrooms and a new conference center to the 40,000-square-foot campus, he said, but they depend on donations to fund the plans.
Gordon Connell, director of association services at the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, said the July announcement of Carlos Vidueria as new executive director will buoy the industry.
Mr. Vidueria plans to announce initiatives the association will undertake in upcoming months, he said.
Since 1961, the association has launched seminars and business training for marine employees in South Florida.
"From speaking to members of the association," Mr. Connell said, "there is a feeling that the last quarter of 2010 is going to be strong because the industry is now recovering."