We’ve got next! Students train at local maritime programs

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The marine industry is always changing, and it’s always in need of new workers to join the ranks.

In the Bayou Region, two local higher education institutions help train both the current and next generation of the industry. Both schools work closely with and receive financial and material support from maritime businesses to provide current, hands-on training to their future employers.

In spite of the oil and gas downturn, both South Central Louisiana Technical College and Nicholls State University are still successfully training and placing students in jobs once they leave. SCLTC, with maritime campuses in both Morgan City and Houma, has a brand-new facility and is adding components to its training and certification classes for all levels of seafarers looking to stay sharp. In Thibodaux, NSU is continuing to churn out future managers set to handle the logistics and coordination aspects of maritime companies.

SCLTC finally settled, with new responsibility

After more than 55 years wandering the Bayou Region from building to building, SCLTC’s marine program finally has a place it can call its own.

Last month, the technical college’s maritime school moved out of SCLTC’s main campus in Morgan City and headed down the road to a brand-new building built specifically for marine studies. The marine campus features classrooms and simulators inside while outside features a variety of hands-on courses, from a firefield to lifeboats and ship decks for students to train on.

The new campus comes as SCLTC has taken on a larger role in marine training in the Bayou Region. Previously, SCLTC and Fletcher Technical Community College had run separate marine industry training courses before recently being married together as complementary courses. As of July 2016, however, Fletcher’s marine program was finished and marine training was consolidated at SCLTC.

Seafaring students looking to get their next level of certification can take courses at either SCLTC’s Morgan City or Houma campuses, depending on their schedules. Carl Moore, assistant dean of the marine program, said SCLTC provides training for all levels of marine labor, from greenhorns just starting to sea captains maintaining their certifications. Moore said many companies prefer those wishing to join a boat to come in and at least get some work at SCLTC before hitting the waters.

“The industry doesn’t want to send a person out there green without any type of training. They actually want to get them in here, get them aware of these classes, so when they go out there they’re not going to be a hindrance,” Moore said.

Most marine students at SCLTC are not receiving a two or four-year degree, although Moore said the school is working with a consortium to take their courses and a student’s seatime and move it towards a degree. However, all seafarers must get the proper training and certification, combined with that time on a boat, to be eligible to move up a position.

Most of the students coming to SCLTC are already experienced in the maritime industry, according to Moore. He estimated that 90 percent of his students to be employed and the average age of a student to be about 30 years old. Moore said attendance has dropped off during the oil and gas downturn, particularly among new hires, but now more experienced mariners are coming back to either upgrade their license or change their certification to work in another field.

“You have to change, you have to be able to evolve, and that’s one of the things the school has been able to do, is to evolve,” Moore said.

Evolve Moore’s marine program has and continues to do so. SCLTC has a $500,000 vessel simulator, with a full, 360-degree view, digital tracking and steering systems. Students can drive vessels up and down rivers and in the Gulf of Mexico for hours on end while an instructor monitors their progress, and can change the scenario with a click, just outside the room.

“We like for them to ride for a couple of hours then send a tugboat up behind them to run them over when they get comfortable, because that’s how it happens in the real world,” Moore said.

On the outside, the marine campus in Morgan City has a bunch of hands-on amenities for students. The technical college receives lots of input from the industry, and many courses are created at the behest of specific companies, who not only tell SCLTC what they want but then provide them with the proper equipment to teach the course. The college has a firefield as well as a flash-over unit for students to learn how to put out fires. There is a deck overlooking Bayou Bouef for students to make open-water dives and repair a flange in zero visibility. There are also sample ship decks, complete with cranes so prospective mariners can fully practice loading containers onto ships. There are also lifeboats, for both offshore and inshore boats, as well as a pool to learn water survival. Moore said Cenac Marine Services is refurbishing an entire oil barge where students at the Houma campus can learn to be tanker men, due to be finished within a few weeks.

All of these amenities are part of the larger emphasis on hands-on experience at SCLTC, moving away from memorizing tests and instead moving to real, applicable skills. Moore said getting students comfortable in those real-life situations gets them much more ready to handle the jobs on a boat. That comfortability makes things run smoother for those boat businesses, but it also means everyone involved is safer.

“Even though the economy is down, safety is the first when it comes to their employees. they want to make sure their employees, when they go to work, they’re able to do the job, and they’re able to make it home to their families,” Moore said.

The technical college’s marine program follows the Standards of Training Certification and Watchkeeping, standardized training rules for the International Maritime Organization. Someone labeled an able-bodied seafarer in England will have received the same training as someone in Morgan City. Moore said the continued input and contributions from industry partners shows the support they have for the training SCLTC is providing their workers.

“They know the integrity of the training here. Because we’re a state entity. We can’t just give certificates willy nilly,” Moore said. “They go through, as a student would, they know that every one of them are being taught what we said we’re going to test, so the integrity of our training in Morgan City and Houma is probably our brand. They know when they come to this facility, the equipment’s top notch, the instructors are top notch, so when the student comes here, the students realize where they are.”

Nicholls: white-collar marine training

While SCLTC handles the everyday workers and captains on boats, Nicholls prepares those who will be coordinating the business.

NSU’s maritime management program is part of the university’s business school, but the maritime students take five particular courses focusing on the marine industry. These students continue to graduate and find jobs for companies servicing offshore oil exploration and those shipping commodities up and down rivers.

Dr. Ken Chadwick, director of NSU’s maritime program, said attendance has been down during the downturn. However, the students coming through the maritime program have still mostly been able to find jobs, even during these slow times.

“Some of these companies that are struggling, many are still looking for good people, especially as baby boomers continue to retire, not only in this industry and in others,” Chadwick said.

Seth Cheramie joined Nicholls’ maritime program after spending a year at Louisiana State University and realizing it wasn’t for him. He was born into the marine industry, as both his father and grandfather have operated tugboats since the 1970s, but he never gave much thought about coming to Nicholls. Once he looked into the maritime program, he made the switch to NSU. He graduated on May 13 this year, but he said even he had doubts about the job market during this energy sector malaise.

“These big companies that are laying off people at the moment, why would you want to hire a guy that’s fresh out of school with no experience? But, our program’s been proven that the type of people we’re graduating have proven themselves to at least be above other college students in that realm,” Cheramie said.

Last week Cheramie was dealing with a good problem to have, as he was having to choose which company he would work for. He said he turned down a coordinator job outside of the marine industry to instead take a dispatch job because maritime oil and gas is his passion. He hopes his arrival for the slowdown will have him ready to move up the ladder once the industry starts booming again.

One of the key classes for maritime students is the “Economics of Shipping” course, which Cheramie cited as the one he learned the most in. Dr. Laura Coogan teaches that class, bringing her own real-world shipping experience and a combination of micro- and macroeconomics to the course. Students are required to look at the demand of individual vessels and ports while also looking at global demand, developing countries and commodity prices.

Dr. Coogan said that kind of outlook is something critical for the students at Nicholls. She said she also pushes students to become more observant, suggesting reading news items or even stopping along the Mississippi River under Highway 310 for 10 minutes to notice all the shipping activity going on. Between that kind of big-picture emphasis and the hands-on experience learned at an internship, which students are required to spend 150 hours at, Nicholls can adequately prepare students for an evolving industry.

“It’s an industry that has its ups and downs, it’s always changing. It’s not really cyclical like the same thing going up and down. It’s always transforming into something new, but it’s always going to be there,” Dr. Coogan said. “There’s always going to be global trade, there’s always going to be demand for energy. The true economic drivers will always be there.”

Nicholls’ maritime program was started in 2013 as a way to answer a labor shortage. While local technical colleges trained boat workers and captains, there was no local training ground for the white-collar managers of marine business. A collection of regional marine powerhouses, working with the South Central Industrial Association, developed the curriculum with Nicholls and provided money for the program’s first five years of operation. Chadwick said the marine program has received additional funds from SCIA, as well as the Lafourche Oilman’s Association and shipping company Archer Daniels Midland for the program to keep going well beyond 2018.

“We’re still pretty set financially for the foreseeable future,” Chadwick said.

While so much of Terrebonne and Lafourche parish is dependent on the energy sector, there are still other opportunities nearby for NSU marine graduates. According to Chadwick, many students have been finding jobs with shipping companies on rivers, as those businesses have not been hit as hard by the oil glut. As the employment successes of those students show, the industry is always looking to tap the talent pool for gifted young managers. Cheramie credited Chadwick and Dr. Joe Orgeron, an instructor at Nicholls and the chief technology officer at Montco Offshore, for their guidance and encouragement during his education and subsequent job search.

“If anybody has second guessed going into the maritime industry, even in the downturn, I would suggest coming visit and talk to Dr. Chadwick and Dr. Joe and see what it’s like,” Cheramie said. •

Students train at local maritime programsKARL GOMMEL | THE TIMES