Riding the waveGreat Lakes Boat Building School students find success in growing recreational boating industry

Paths to a post-high school education can lead in many directions. 

Among the opportunities for youth in Michigan and beyond is the Great Lakes Boat Building School in Cedarville. It’s the only accredited boat building school in Michigan and the Great Lakes region.

The school’s growing importance is underscored by the surge in recreational boating in Michigan and across the country in the last five years. In 2018, the economic impact of recreational boating in Michigan was $7.4 billion, supporting 31,129 jobs in the industry, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s Economic Impact Study. 

Fast forward to 2023 and the economic impact has grown to $11.7 billion, with 45,010 jobs and almost 1,500 businesses supported in the industry, says Gina Stegehuis, who is the school’s communication and outreach coordinator.

This growth has a ripple effect, creating more job opportunities in the Great Lakes and across the country for graduates of the Great Lakes Boat Building School, she says. Nationally, the recreational boating industry has an impact of $230 billion per year. The industry supports more than 36,000 businesses and 812,000 jobs across the country.

The Great Lakes Boat Building School has experienced a nearly 100 percent graduate placement rate for its boat building and marine technology programs over the past seven years, Stegehuis says, noting many graduates have multiple job offers. 

UPword asked Stegehuis to share more about the small school, which sits in the Les Cheneaux Islands in Mackinac County in the eastern Upper Peninsula.  

The school's origin: “The school was founded by a group of visionary community members in an effort to preserve wooden boat building techniques. There is a storied history behind wooden boats in the Les Cheneaux area but the community worried that this important craft may be lost for younger generations.

“At its inception we offered many aspects of boat building but over time these programs grew into a full course of Comprehensive Career Boat Building. In 2020 we launched a second certification program in Marine Service Technology which prepares students for careers as marine technicians. Both programs are 12-months long and provide certification opportunities for students in different areas of their training.” 

Accreditation: Because the school is accredited students qualify for financial assistance. At the beginning of the 2023-24 school year, 85 percent of students had qualified for some form of financial aid through Federal Student Aid (FASFA), veteran benefits, scholarships, sponsorships, etc.

An exciting development: “We also have an articulation agreement with North Central Michigan College in Petoskey that allows students to transfer credits from GLBBS toward an associate degree putting them over the halfway mark to the required number of credits for graduating.”

Current enrollment: Enrollment growth hit an all-time high entering the current school year with 30 students. It appears the beginning of the 2024-25 school year enrollment will be at that level. Currently, there are three women among the 17 students enrolled in Marine Service Technology. For the 2024-25 academic year, three women are enrolled in the CCBB program and one in the MST program. A total of 29 students are enrolled for next September. 

Growth: New equipment and training programs are projected. New partners have been added during the past year offering certifications in spray paint finishing on boats, high performance marine engineering and diesel training.

"Work is also underway on a new 10,000-square-foot marine skilled training facility to allow us to double our student enrollment and eventually attain our strategic milestone of 100 students,” Stegehuis says.

The school hopes to double its enrollment to 50 students a year through the expansion of its campus, she says. Goals include growing its diesel and electrical training/MST program and providing dealer training for marine companies in the Midwest. 

A New Partnership: “AkzoNobel (a paint and coatings company) comes to our school once a year to teach spray finishing. A giant inflatable spray booth is set in the parking lot and students put on their paint gear and work with the AkzoNobel team. Students can now be certified with Ilmor High Performance (marine drivetrain) training. Previously, all certifications were conducted at the Ilmor facility in Mooresville, NC. Offerings are also planned with Volvo Penta certifications in the future.”

Career hurdles: A main hurdle is a lack of awareness about the careers in this industry. Many employers in the skilled trades are faced with an aging workforce and have concerns about finding workers to replace those retiring. Another hurdle is the lack of training available. Many construction and mechanical programs are available in the high schools, but students often don’t think about how those skills can be applied in the marine world.

Types of Projects: “Students are assigned a number of preparatory projects, meant to build skills and confidence, prior to their work on a year-long IRS project. Using a combination of hand and power tools, students build a footstool and an oar during their first semester.

“With MST, projects are slightly less structured and mainly designed to help prepare for the less predictable, service-focused environment they will enter after graduation. Projects might include vessel repowers, systems installations and general and advanced marine service.

Stegehuis shared those students in both programs, with instructor approval, have worked on side projects restoring the engines of older boats to building smaller wooden vessels.

Advisors: A Program Advisory Board (PAB) of representatives from across the marine industry works with school instructors to set the curriculum and keep the school up-to-date on current and future training.

Curriculum: “For CCBB students, most shop time is spent working with team members on the Indian River Skiff projects with each three-person group assigned to transform a stack of raw materials into a completed seaworthy vessel. MST students apply knowledge gained from daily classroom instruction to real-world problems they will face when employed in the marine industry.

“Students do get into wood composite and repair, but instruction focuses on wooden boat construction. The skills learned directly apply to building and repairing with fiberglass, aluminum or steel.”

Her background: Stegehuis is native to Northern Michigan and is a graduate of North Central Michigan College.  Her background includes stints working with: Blissfest Music Organization, St. Ignace Visitors Bureau and Northwest Michigan Habitat for Humanity. Her role at the GLBBS centers on community relations and marketing. It’s a broad scope and includes working with volunteers, organizing events, communicating with donors, and creating newsletters, flyers and videos. 

Her enthusiasm for the job is palpable. “There is a level of excitement for every new school year, every scholarship awarded, every certificate earned and every goal a student hits," she says.

Additional information may be found at the school’s website.

Ann Dallman has lifelong roots in Michigan’s UP. She started out as a newspaper reporter/photographer and returned to journalism after retiring from teaching. Her first Middle Grade novel, Cady and the Bear Necklace, received a State History Award (Books/Youth) from the Historical Society of Michigan as well as a Midwest Book Award, New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, was a Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist and a UP Notable Book. Her second book, Cady and the Birchbark Box, also received the Historical Society of Michigan State Award, is also a UP Notable Book and was a finalist in the New Mexico-Arizona 2023 Book Awards. 
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