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Published: Thursday, 10/3/2002

Ottawa County program buoys ranks of marine engine techs

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Instructor Tim Baker, left, assists Darrel Roberson, Chad Thompson, and Trent Sattler. Instructor Tim Baker, left, assists Darrel Roberson, Chad Thompson, and Trent Sattler.
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OAK HARBOR, Ohio - Marine-engine repair training schools frequently drew 19 and 20-year-olds when Tim Baker got into the business in the mid-1970s.

But an industry Catch 22 often leaves budding marine mechanics stranded and local businesses shorthanded: You can't get training from an engine maker unless you're sponsored by a dealer, and you can't get a good-paying job without experience.

“You don't see many guys there under 35 years old,” said the owner of Professional Outboard Service in Marblehead, Ohio. “It's becoming sort of a lost art.”

Yet last year, a coalition of workforce development, training, and business professionals started shoring up such training in Ottawa County, where 480 marine-related businesses pepper the Lake Erie coastline.

The marine-skills program's latest 16-week class began last month at the Ottawa County Resource Centre east of Oak Harbor. It is a partnership among the Ottawa County Improvement Corp., WSOS Community Action Commission, Inc., and Penta County Vocational School.

The class is held four evenings a week to train students such as Tony Below of Oak Harbor. He has worked for five years at Ship Shape Marine Service, Inc., of Port Clinton, which wants to expand from cosmetic boat repairs, and is getting lessons on boat handling, safety, and other techniques as well.

“I figure if I'm going to be in the marine business, I want to know as much as I can,” said 28-year-old Mr. Below. “I'm going to be better off down the road.”

A $150,000 U.S. Department of Labor grant helped start the program, which costs trainees little, if anything, and provides them with $500 worth of tools after completion. Good mechanics can make $15 to $18 an hour, said Mr. Baker, a program instructor.

Coordinators achieved a coup last year when they called Volvo Penta of the Americas for help and wound up housing one of the engine maker's eight North American training schools at the county center. As part of three-year contract to host weekly classes from November to April, Volvo Penta is donating more than $500,000 worth of equipment and materials for the local program and is giving scholarships to top students.

Volvo Penta, which has 51 dealers in the tri-county area, wanted to move one of its schools from a rented facility in Chicago. Discovering that the five-county northwest Ohio area has the third largest concentration of pleasure boats in the nation helped seal the deal in Ottawa County, said John Brackbill, technical training manager for the engine maker, which has its North American headquarters in Chesapeake, Va.

“We like the area,” he said. “It's obviously working for us.”



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