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A New Maritime Academy Offers Life Raft to Unemployed

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 04 Oct 2011 09:21am | comments
Ingalls Maritime Academy, a work-study program, set to double, maybe triple, enrollment.

Mississippi’s gulf coast is home to one of the only manufacturing sectors still growing in the country, but it’ll need more workers with new skills to really stretch its legs. MPB’s Education Reporter, Annie Gilbertson visits the site of the new Pascagoula Maritime Academy, which will be tasked with educating tomorrow's shipbuilders

We've all heard of a growing green economy, but the blue economy?  The maritime industry is one of the fastest growing industries in Mississippi. The problem is the skill set required for those jobs don't match those looking for work.

In steps the community college.

Landry: “The shipyards of today aren’t the shipyards your grandfather or father worked in.”

Mark Landry is Director of Development at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in Jackson County and says these jobs require advanced manufacturing skills and knowledge of indu stry-specific computer technology.

Landry: “One of our tasks in providing career and technical training and workforce training is really to provide just in time training. To be able to start and stop a program based on the need of the community.”

And what the community needs now is more shipbuilders.  Huntington Ingalls, a spin-off of the defense contractor Northrop Grumman, was awarded a $700 million contract to build a destroyer for the Navy last week. That's the fourth contract this year. To keep up with demand, they need ship-fitters, welders, pipe-fitters and other journeymen on board.

Mike Bellinger is jumping at the chance to fill that void.

Bellinger: “Whenever I came out here I never struck an ark on a welding rod. I never lit a torch.  Nothing. My grandfather was a welder and he used to have welding rods around the house and we used to play with those as drumsticks.  And that’s it.”

He's now a ship-fitting apprentice with Ingalls.  It's a paid work-study opportunity. He spends part of the day in the classroom, then takes what he’s learning out to the shipyard.

Bellinger: “Take, for instance, we had to learn welding symbols.  There was welding symbols in the book I’d never seen before. I made a point the next day to try and hunt and find those welding symbols.”

After a long career as a truck driver, Bellinger is enjoying the intellectual stimulation of being back in the classroom. He's making somewhere between 35 and 40 thousand dollars a year as an apprentice so he doesn't worry about supporting his wife and kids while in school.

Shipyards are in the family too. His uncle, father and stepfather all worked in the industry and his younger brother was the one that told him about the Ingles apprenticeship program. 

Bellinger: “I was like, man, that sounds too good be true. “

And for his brother, it was too good to be true.  Out of nearly 250 applicants, Bellinger's brother was cut in the final round, whittling the class down to 20.

He might not have been cut if all this was happening two years from now.  A new Maritime Academy is being built in Ingles' shipyard that will allow the company to double, maybe even triple, its apprenticeship class.

The Maritime Academy is being built with a Katrina-related block grant approved by Congress and distributed by the Mississippi Development Authority to partnerships with a plan.  This partnership, awarded 20 million, includes Jackson County, Port of Pascagoula, Hungtington Ingalls and the local community college.

Marc McAndrews, the director of the publicly-overseen port, explains why it’s in taxpayer interest to build a school for a private company.

McAndrews: “For projects to qualify for this Katrina funding, it requires a commitment from the company to create new jobs.”

And many of the skills taught are transferable to other local blue industries, such as oil production and commercial shipping.  But naval manufacturing accounts for the majority of jobs in the Port of Pascagoula so the industry is heavily reliant on military spending and the defense contracts it produces.

So success for this Maritime Academy and perhaps the entire port will depend on whether or not Americans want another Navy ship. And another one. And another one.

If not, then it will be up to the community college to retool the workforce once again, preparing them for the next generation of jobs

From the Southern Education Desk, for MPB News, I'm Annie Gilbertson.

Images

Ingalls Maritime Academy, a work-study program, set to double, maybe triple, enrollment.


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