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Maine boat builders work to fill staff as orders pile up

Bosses and teachers talked during an annual outreach conference.

BATH, Maine — The Maine Maritime Museum marks the storied history of ships and boats, as well as those who built them. 

Because there's no lobstering without lobster boats, no pleasure cruises without wooden schooners, and none of any of it exists without the men and women who craft those floating works of art.

The museum played host to some of the industry's leaders on Tuesday, networking about everything from legal tactics to restoration techniques. While competition seems cordial among the businesses, NEWS CENTER Maine asked how it's going, attracting the next generation of boat builders.

Jon Johansen runs Maine Built Boats, Tuesday's event host and an organization whose mission is to get Maine builders exposure. He answered that question with one word: "Horrible."

"I don’t think a lot of kids understand what can be at a facility, say, like, Brooklyn Boat Yard; or Front Street; or any of these places," he said. "There’s some brilliant people who work in these places. They could have done anything they wanted in life, and they chose to build boats. And they have a passion for doing this."

JB Turner, president of Front Street Shipyard, doesn't share Johansen's gloomy report on the next wave of builders. He said he has many young people in his shop; though he is definitely hiring. 

"I think it's not as bad as some would like to say," he said. "I think it's a struggle to get employees. It is in every industry."

He's not alone.

Susan Swanton helps run The Landing School in Arundel. Her campus caps at 90 students. She's got little more than half of that right now. But she blames the pandemic.

"These last few years where we've had people enroll and then need to pull out because someone had gotten sick, or they were really fearful and didn't want to make a commitment," she said.

Swanton doubled down, saying her students love what they do, and they'll never go hungry.

"Our students are very much in demand, and the world can really be their oyster," Swanton said.

She added that applications for next year are increasing again and hopes to get back to full force. That's a good thing because, Turner said, COVID only made people want to get out on the water more than ever. 

And they all need a boat.

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