"Want A Job, Kid?"

Good, blue-collar tradesman jobs - America just doesn't produce those anymore, right? Wrong. And one of Fort Lauderdale's biggest industries is an untapped resource.

By: 

Ryan Pfeffer

Published date: 

Nov. 1, 2017

Millennials, pre- and post-college kids, young men and women gazing towards their professional futures with teeth-gnashing uncertainty: Listen! Please! Drop the fidget spinners and lengthen your allegedly short attention spans for the next couple thousand words. Here's an enticing offer.

Surely you’ve heard about this thing we call the job market, right? That big, scary capitalist machine that has no friends and wears all black? It lurks, just around the corner, waiting to pop out and make fun of your English degree. It was probably discussed by your teachers at great length—in gravelly ominous tones—around the year 2008?

These jobs, they said, don’t just grow on trees anymore. The days of Broward County nurturing billion-dollar industries with hundreds of thousands of middle class jobs are gone. And if you want even a small slice of our economic pie, you’ve got to go to college. Don’t like the sound of that? Well, don’t expect to make $40,000 a year until you’re starting to go grey.

But here’s the kicker: They were wrong. Because there is an $8.8 billion industry in Broward County. It does create 110,000 middle class jobs that hire kids straight out of high school. You can get paid in more than hunks of stale bread.

So, what’s the problem? It’s maddeningly simple and a tad infuriating: No one ever told you about it.

“People came back from World War II and said: We’re going to educate our kids,” says Phil Purcell, the CEO and president of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida. “And then the Baby Boomers told their kids, ‘Guess what? We want you to get an education also.’”

But soon those kids—looking at you, millennials—learned the hard way that the path to becoming heart surgeons and superheroes was lined with debt and impracticality. No one leveled with them. And, more important, no one ever showed them how to use a freaking hammer.

“The reality of it is, a kid can get out of high school, go to one of the local crew training schools here, and as long as they have the right attitude, they can get on a boat right out of high school and make close to $40,000 a year,” Purcell says.

Fort Lauderdale’s marine industry is a global titan—one of our grandest contributions to the world. The not-for-profit MIASF is devoted to keeping Broward’s marine industry—specifically its blue-collar trade jobs—healthy and here, in Fort Lauderdale. It also owns the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, a week-long event that many in the marine industry call their Super Bowl, even though it brings more money to the state of Florida than an actual Super Bowl.

But without a new generation to rejuvenate the local marine industry, its future is uncertain. If this industry wants to stay afloat, it’s going to have to capture the hearts and minds of South Florida’s youth. Luckily, in that journey, the ship has already left the dock.


Propelled to Greatness

You need earplugs before you can walk into the shop of Frank and Jimmie’s Propeller Shop, one of the largest and oldest propeller repair/manufacturers in the U.S. “We’re very focused on safety,” company president and Chief Operating Officer Don MacRae says as he twists a couple fresh pairs out like candy from a dispenser by the door.

The need for ear protection becomes apparent after only a few steps into the muggy warehouse, where you’re greeted every few seconds by what sounds like two hammers fighting over the title of Loudest Tool in Florida. The concrete acoustics are especially unforgiving to anyone who just can’t, for the life of them, seem to get their right earplug to stay in.

Here, across the street from a hipster coffee shop on the edge of downtown Fort Lauderdale, somewhere around 30 employees work on the different stages of propeller repair, a process MacRae describes as “space age meets stone age.” This location is Frank and Jimmie’s third since the company started in Fort Lauderdale back in 1947 as a partnership between Frank Baron and Jimmie Harrison. Though the two founders have since passed on, their little business has gone international, with outposts in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela and the Bahamas.

The workers in the shop don the classic mechanic button-down/dark blue Dockers combo. In everything but gender (it’s all men on this particular Friday morning), they are diverse. “We’ve got a fairly young workforce here,” MacRae says, weaving between props the size of ceiling fans.

Recruiting has been a priority for MacRae in the nearly three years he’s been at the company. Most new employees walk in the door with little to no experience, so he’s created a sort of buddy system where the greener employees pair up with a seasoned pro (there are a couple who’ve been with Frank and Jimmie’s for 40 years or more).

The job blends high tech computing and intuitive craftsmanship. Dented propellers, bent propellers and propellers in various forms of disrepair are scanned with a machine shaped like an old school arcade Pac-Man. That scan identifies what areas of the prop need to be mended, and from there, it’s hammer time. “There’s an art to it,” MacRae says. “It’s not just banging away on the propeller, but leveraging and knowing where.”

It’s a lot of work for one small but important part of a boat. And the thing is, boats are covered in important parts, many of which require specialists. The land-dwelling among us might find it difficult to conceive the scope of Broward’s marine industry, but Purcell likes to visualize it like this: “When you go over a bridge and you look down at a big boat—let’s say it’s 200 and some feet. Between wages, goods, services, dockage—that’s a $5 to $7 million economic impact just sitting there.” And most of that money is spread out at local businesses like Frank and Jimmie’s.

“I tell young people when we go on tours to high schools,” MacRae says, “if you want to be in investment banking, where are you going to go work? New York City. If you want to be in tech, you go to San Francisco. But if you want to work in the marine industry, this is the place to be.”

MacRae is focused, passionate, and has a gin-clear vision of what he wants his company to be in the next decade. And right now, he’s confident he’s got the team to make that happen. He is pragmatic, though, about the struggle his industry faces in, as he puts it, “getting the word out about the tremendous variety and opportunity that there is in the marine industry.”

He’s been proactive about the issue. Frank and Jimmie’s is a frequent guest at local job fairs. Every summer, the company visits Fort Lauderdale’s Marine Industry Immersion Summer Camp—which, yes, exists—and lets high school students design and make their own propellers, which they then race on actual remote control boats. It makes the ol’ physics class egg drop look like a real snooze.

MacRae cares deeply about this stuff on not just a professional level, but a personal one. The “tremendous variety and opportunity” he speaks of—he’s seen it happen firsthand throughout his own decade-long career, one that took him from deckhand of the Chicago Water Taxi to the office he sits in now. He takes a quick breath and braces himself for a cliché.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” he says. “I’ve seen this happen for myself, and I believe it.”


Salt Life

In the fight to stay relevant, the Fort Lauderdale marine industry must go where it has never gone before: YouTube.

“If you’re around a group of middle school or high school kids for five minutes, you’ll be lucky if they don’t pull their phone out of their pocket,” says Sean Smith, the director of development for MIASF. It was this somewhat obvious realization that led to the association’s newest pet project: Salty Jobs.

The seven-part video series, in which Smith plays the role of host, debuted on YouTube in October 2016. Each episode features a different local marine business (Frank and Jimmie’s was the star of episode three) and the videos are purposefully short and digestible.

“Now kids can go tell their mom and dad, ‘Hey, guess what? I could get a job in the marine industry.’ But they’ll be able to show it to them on their phone,” Purcell says.

For Smith, who just turned 29, Salty Jobs is about translating the marine industry’s trade jobs into a language young people can understand, which, from his perspective, is a task more crucial than ever. “It’s bad,” he says. “Automotive, aviation, construction, marine industry—we’re all fighting over the same pool of kids. That resembling more of a kiddy pool nowadays... People are having positions that have been sitting open, not just for weeks, not months, but there’s been certain positions at certain places that have probably been open for a year.”

As part of his education outreach with MIASF, Smith speaks to kids at schools and camps every now and then. When he asks them if they’re familiar with the marine industry, the results are not good. “Maybe half raise their hands,” he says. Of those with their hands still up, Smith asks next if they know about the industry only because a family member works in it. “About 75 percent of those kids raise their hand…The message isn’t getting out there.”

And part of the reason is that it’s difficult to compete with the narrative that has been pervasive in schools for the last 20 years: go to college, get a degree, enjoy your cubicle. “One, they don’t really know what we do here, and two, there’s such an emphasis that the kid needs to go to college,” says Eric Hruska, the general manager of Lauderdale Marine Center. And if you’ve never heard of the Lauderdale Marine Center, well, you’re only proving his point.

You’ve seen it before. It’s that massive marina that looms east of I-95 between State Road 84 and Davie Boulevard. The one with big, screaming white letters spelling out “Lauderdale Marine Center” along the side. It is one of the oldest and largest marine operations in the city, and serves as a sort of one-stop shop for all your boating needs: dockage, painting, carpentry, maintenance. There are more than 60 independent marine tenants on the 65-acre property, including a very cool boat lift nicknamed The Beast that can hoist up to 485 tons.

Even still, Hruska says, “it has been difficult over the last several years to find quality folks that want to get into these fields.” His wife’s a teacher and he’s seen the educational mindset shift away from trade jobs over the years. “When I went to high school back in the ’80s, there was a pipeline for folks that wanted to go more blue collar. There doesn’t seem to be that now, so we’re hiring folks pretty much off the street and teaching them everything from the ground up.”

Sean Smith gets it. He, too, was in college not long ago, chasing a career that seemed sexy on paper: sports management. Until one day, a guest speaker came to his class and delivered some bad news. “He talked about how everybody and their sister was trying to work in sports. The vast majority of people basically start as an usher for dollars an hour and slowly work their way up the ladder.”

That didn’t sound too fun to him, so he sought the advice of a teacher after class. A bit terrified, he asked what other career paths lined up with the skills he’d been learning in school. She suggested he check out MIASF, and in just three-and-a-half years he went from intern to director of development.

Needless to say, he does not regret his decision and, in Hruska’s experience, neither do most people. “Once they realize what’s here and the money that can be made, their attitudes change.”


More Than Millionaires

When the dust clears, the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show—one of the biggest marine gatherings in the world with more than 100,000 attendees from more than 50 countries—will have left an economic crater that you could fill with water and dock your yacht in. Studies conducted by MIASF have found that the boat show delivers an overall $857 million impact to the state of Florida. The show itself will see somewhere around $508 million in direct sales. “Over $100 million a day changes hands at that boat show,” Purcell says.

Make no mistake: Right now, the Broward County marine industry is strong. And despite the challenges at hand, there’s plenty of reason to believe it’ll stay that way. Smith is proud to report that, for the first time in its history, the marine program at Broward College has a waiting list. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that overlapped with when we began to push Salty Jobs,” he says.

You’ll certainly find Frank and Jimmie’s in attendance at this year’s boat show. “It’s the Super Bowl of the industry,” MacRae says. “We’re showing propellers. We’re answering questions. It’s fun to see all your peers in the industry coming together.” It drums up new business for many of these local shops and helps with that immeasurable and elusive thing: exposure.

Plus, it’s a proud Fort Lauderdale tradition, but one that all too often gets tossed aside as a fancy playground for rich yachties. It’s true: These boats have a price tag that weighs more than you. And sure, fancy pants characters like Johnny Depp and J.K Rowling have these floating beasts of opulence docked right here in Fort Lauderdale. So why should people whose bank account winces at even the sight of these boats care?

Because it’s not about the people signing the checks. Not at all.

Last year, Smith and MIASF organized a field trip to the Lauderdale Marine Center for South Broward High School. But they didn’t invite any students. They invited the teachers—to show them just how much opportunity there was in this industry, so maybe, if they saw a kid who might be right for one of these trade jobs, they could speak up. MIASF gathered industry leaders for a panel discussion and the group explained about all the different jobs and career opportunities available in the industry. Afterward, they were all touring the grounds when Smith noticed one of the teachers break off to speak to a young worker. A few minutes later, she tapped Smith on the shoulder.

“Hey,” she asked, “that young man I spoke to—is he doing well at his job?”

Smith went over and asked the boss. He shook his head in a big yes. “Oh, he’s been promoted three times in the past two years.”

Smith relayed the news and she was floored. “That is amazing,” she said. Apparently, the kid wasn’t exactly class valedictorian. “Problem child,” was the word she had used.

“I knew all those types of kids when I was growing up in middle school and high school,” Smith says. “The kids who may be struggling in certain aspects of the classroom but are working on their cars in the parking lot. I knew who to go to when I had a mechanical problem. The teachers see who these kids are too. If they know where to point them, it helps in the long run.”

As the tour continued, the teacher looked back one more time. She still couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing. “I wouldn’t have thought he was going to make it,” she said.