Coast Guard grows its own tradespeople at repair yard

Since 1899, the Coast Guard's shipyard at Curtis Bay has added years to the life of the sea-battered fleet, repairing and upgrading hundreds of cutters before sending them back on patrol.

So in 2002 when shipyard officials looked at the future and saw a graying workforce with an average age of 47, they crafted a rejuvenation plan based on nurturing home-grown talent.

The trades training program they created has placed 125 students and graduates in the Curtis Bay workforce, which numbers 625. The apprentices receive not just trades training but college credits. Many go on to complete an associate's degree.

The apprenticeship experience is "dirty and exhausting and fun," said Melody Bloch, 26, a graduate and marine machinist from Pasadena. And it pays — $36,000 a year during the four-year program and a salary of about $49,000 upon graduation.

As for job security? The ships just keep on coming.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who toured the shipyard last fall, praised the partnership between the Coast Guard and the Community College of Baltimore County, which teaches math and science to the apprentices.

"Through this trades training program, we are equipping our trade workers with the tools they need for a successful future — hands-on experience and credit towards their college degree. Workforce development is critical to filling good-paying jobs that are available now here in Baltimore," Mikulski said.

The Curtis Bay program is modeled after those offered by the Navy and General Dynamics Corp. in Norfolk, Va., combining college-level courses with on-the-job training. The first class of 26 apprentices arrived in 2004. Four years later, 16 graduated.

"I was getting out of the Coast Guard and I didn't know what I was going to do. I literally stepped off the cutter and into the first class," said Jason Deyo, 31, a shipyard safety specialist who enlisted right out of Loch Raven High School. "What a great opportunity."

Deyo completed his two-year degree, got a bachelor's in occupational safety and is working now on a master's in organizational leadership from Columbia Southern University.

Graduates receive permanent appointments at Curtis Bay, an arrangement Capt. Richard Murphy, the yard's commanding officer, called "good for both sides.

"We're investing in the future of the yard with focused, motivated people," he said. "With their four-year commitment, they are saying they want to be here."

The Coast Guard yard's graying workforce reflects the entire federal workforce. Nearly 75 percent of federal employees are over age 40, compared to only 40 percent in the private sector, according to a Congressional Budget Office report last year. Just 3 percent of federal workers are 25 or younger.

"We looked at our workforce in 2002, 2003 and realized that 40 percent of our employees would be retiring in the next several years and that there weren't that many skilled people available in the marine trades," said Charles Zerbe, production manager of Curtis Bay's industrial department. "We decided that we wanted trainees coming out of the program to be educated not only in the trades, but also in the skills that would allow them to move into other areas, like management."

Curtis Bay managers look at retirement projections and the number and complexity of projects in the pipeline when deciding which trades to advertise on the USAJobs.gov website: welding, sheet metal, machinery, pipefitting, electrical and painting trades.

"You always need electricians. There's never enough," Zerbe said. "You never have enough painters."

Applicants must have a high school diploma or an equivalent and take college placement tests. Each candidate is interviewed by an eight-person panel that includes five shipyard foremen. The size of each class — one is launched every two years — is determined by the number of employees Curtis Bay is allowed in the Coast Guard budget.

On average 100 people apply for each position, Zerbe said. Federal hiring policy precludes waiting lists.

While attending community college, apprentices must earn a grade of 70 in each course; two failing grades is cause for dismissal. Classroom education is supplemented with trades training aboard ship or in the Curtis Bay shops.

"By the time they finish in four years, they'll have 39 credits and only need 21 more — about two semesters — for an associate's degree. That's real incentive to get that degree and it ensures we have a high-quality workforce," Zerbe said.

The program costs about $100,000 annually, covering tuition and on-the-job instruction, Zerbe said. The money comes out of the shipyard's operating budget.

The apprentices say the work is varied and keeps them on their toes.

"It's not like 'Groundhog Day,' " said Chris LaPorte, 31, a welder and third-year student from Baltimore. "There's a real sense of satisfaction. The ship is all apart and you don't know how it's going to get back together, but then it gets back together and looks pristine."

Added third-year student Kenard McCoy, 21, of Baltimore: "It feels like a big responsibility, but it's a good responsibility. You know, inside, that the military can count on us."

Only a few graduates have left Curtis Bay for other shipyards.

Bloch said the pride she takes in her work has spilled over into her personal life.

"You look at every boat. I was on vacation in St. Martin and I saw a boat I worked on. You say, 'Hey, that's mine,' " she said, smiling. "You can't help but look and see if they're taking good care of what you worked on."