Great Lakes Boat Building School expandsSchool will train more students to fill maritime jobs

With nearly one million registered watercrafts, Michigan ranks second in the nation in the number of boats.

Keeping them all afloat is the aim of the Great Lakes Boat Building School in the Les Cheneaux Islands near Cedarville.

The school recently completed the largest fundraising campaign in its short history and is poised to break ground on a 10,000-square-foot Marine Technology Center, a $3.8 million project that will double the school’s size and eventually quadruple its enrollment capacity. Construction is expected to begin this summer.

The only marine industry school in the Great Lakes, the Great Lakes Boat Building School’s programs range from its original curriculum of building, maintaining and restoring wooden boats to its newest marine services technology program. The curriculum will soon include marine electronics training as well – believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.

Driving the school’s expansion in size and scope is a dire need for qualified workers in the nation’s boating industry, says Thomas Coates, the school’s director of development. 

"We're really pleased with the folks, the foundations, the individuals who have stepped up and who have seen the importance of what we're doing," he says.

Located in the far eastern Upper Peninsula, the Great Lakes Boat Building School is addressing the most crucial needs in the marine industry: a dire qualified workforce shortage. Industry officials in Michigan and beyond have bemoaned the lack of skilled workers.  The school has capacity for 24 students; the industry is demanding more.

School officials say the expansion will address current and emerging needs in the industry and will have a rippling economic effect throughout Michigan, the Great Lakes and beyond. 

A study by Central Michigan University shows that locally, the Great Lakes Boat Building School has a direct and indirect economic impact of more than $1 million in local spending. With the anticipated doubling of enrollment, that local impact will soon exceed $2 million annually, Coates says.

Tom Ervin, president of Walstrom Marine in Harbor Springs, says the boating industry needs trades people and there are very few marine schools in the country.

“And there's none that offers as comprehensive a training program as Great Lakes Boat Building School does,” Ervin says. “So, we're excited that it's in our neighborhood and we're excited that these young adults end up in the boat business. “

The school launched its “Come Aboard, Launch Careers” capital campaign in December 2021 to expand facilities, enroll more students and enhance programming. Ervin has been among the contributors and supporters. 

His company has so far hired five graduates from the school and is offering tuition reimbursement and scholarships to encourage more.

“We've really been excited about the graduates we've hired and watching them grow and to see how quickly they have become successful in our organization,” he says.

According to the Michigan Boating Industry Association, about half of Michigan’s population gets on the water each year to boat and fish. Michigan’s love affair with boating is easy to understand— with 3,288 miles of shoreline, the state is second only to Alaska in boat-launching potential. 

No wonder, then, that boating has a $7.8 billion annual impact on Michigan’s economy, supporting 1,500 marine businesses and 58,000 marine-related jobs. A report prepared in 2017 for the Michigan Port Collaborative shows billions of dollars in labor “can be attributed to the economic activity spawned by the state’s ports and harbors, and on a statewide-level, water-based tourism and recreation economic impacts are nearly four times the size of commercial economic impacts.”

Michigan and the Upper Peninsula have a long maritime history. The first Chris-Craft Boats dealer in the world was established in the 1920s in nearby Hessel, and the Les Cheneaux Islands remain a haven for wooden boats of that era. 

The Great Lakes Boat Building School was established in 2006 by three vintage boat enthusiasts, and at first focused primarily on wooden boat building and restoration.

Since then, the school has grown to offer:

— A three-semester, 12-month Comprehensive Career Boat Building that prepares students for employment opportunities in wooden boat building, restoration and service settings. Coursework includes instruction in the classroom and in the boat shop, intensive hands-on application in a supervised lab, and team and individual projects in the 12,000-square-foot workshop. The program boasts a 100 percent graduate employment placement rate over the past six years.

— Marine Service Technology, which graduated its first class in the fall of 2021. The three-semester, 12-month program prepares students to become entry-level marine technicians and has had a 94.4 percent graduate placement rate during the first two years.

— Through The Great Lakes Boat Building School’s exclusive partnership with Mercury Marine, students can earn a Mercury Marine technician number and test for maintenance certifications. The school’s affiliation with the American Boat & Yacht Council makes graduates eligible to test for ABYC certifications as well. 

“We have brought on a high-performance engine manufacturer, Ilmor Marine out of Plymouth, Michigan,” Coates says. “We're going to be an Ilmor University, and then they're going to donate their engines and equipment. It's a win-win because we want our students trained on the latest and greatest for the manufacturers and dealers; it behooves them to have our students working on their engines.”

A similar arrangement is in the works for students to work on diesel engines, he says.

The school’s expansion project also includes new docking and waterfront improvements along with interior student life improvements like a student commons area. 

Along with the capital campaign, the school also launched “Fill in the Planks,” a matching fund for donors, to help raise money. Donations of at least $1,000 had the opportunity to be recognized on the planks of the future boardwalk and docking facility. 

Among the school’s recent graduates is Kyle Faner, who is now living in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where is working with Gage Marine. He has certifications in marine gas, marine diesel and marine systems from the Great Lakes Boat Building School. He was the recipient of a $10,000 Gage Marine Scholarship and was awarded free housing after graduation, a $1,500 moving stipend and guaranteed employment.

“I got assigned a senior technician to show me the ropes and teach me everything, and on top of that, Gage said ‘When you need schooling, we're going to send you off to wherever you need to go to get that schooling,” he says.  

The school was not Faner’s first career choice. He was working as a division manager for a large scrap yard business in Ishpeming, when he began to have career doubts. He found himself spending more time out in the yard with the crew and less time on the “spreadsheets, load schedules, hiring and firing, interviews, blah, blah, blah,” that were his responsibility, Faner says.  

Kyle Faner working on a 400-horsepower engine at Gage Marine.As a kid growing up in the Detroit suburbs, he had always enjoyed working with his hands, he says, but had never considered any career route other than earning a college degree. Yet, there he was, in his mid-30s, with a bachelor's degree in microbiology, inspired by the workers who could fix anything. He was more intrigued by learning how to change out a hub assembly on a Bobcat than office work.

“Yeah, so I was getting into trouble with my boss,” he says, “because he kept saying, ‘Where the heck are you? You're supposed to be in the office,’ and here I am, wrenching and fixing.”

Faner started researching careers in the trades and was excited to discover the Great Lakes Boat Building School just three or so hours away from Ishpeming, with programs that sounded like exactly what he was hoping for.

“I did it because I was in need of a life change,” he explains. “This is just everything it was supposed to be and it's like, I worked so hard for this, and this is great.” 

In the past six years, there has been 100 percent job placement among graduates from the Great Lakes Boat Building School.

“The industry has been great to us,” Coates says. “Our community has been really good to us …  it's been nothing but positive.”

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years.
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