Most marine fabricators have specialized skills honed over decades. Some were privileged to grow up in a family business. Some of the women fabricators I know learned to sew by making their own clothes and were taught by a mother or grandmother. I’ve always thought if you could sew a collar or an armhole from a shirt or dress pattern, you could adapt those skills to the complex angles of boat cushions. No matter how you entered the business, it’s rare for a marine fabricator to become an award winner without years of tutelage as an apprentice by either a family member, school training classes or a dedicated teacher or employer.
In the past six months, Sand Sea & Air lost two of our key skilled sewing and installation employees. Despite knowing they were leaving ahead of time, it’s been challenging to replace them and get back to timely and profitable deliveries. Our business was already dramatically affected by Hurricane Maria.
This column will discuss our process for sourcing, hiring and training a new assistant. Whether you’re expanding your shop or replacing a valuable employee who has moved on, I invite you to try our process and let me know how it works for you.
Word-of-mouth hiring only goes so far, so in addition to placing help-wanted ads online and in area newspapers, reach out to vocational schools, fabric shops and local vendors catering to the marine trade. Once job applicants start contacting you, the primary challenges are conducting interviews and training new employees despite being consumed with managing a business.
We recently created a pre-qualification application form to more efficiently gather the who, what, where and when of a job applicant’s skills and work history. This form collects information that helps us screen for the best possible candidates.
The form has gone through various revisions to help us nail down the level of a candidate’s talent as well as his or her willingness and aptitude for learning new skills. We recently started a new person who had industrial sewing skills, yet it took us longer than anticipated to learn that she was more of a “hobbyist” than someone interested in developing her skills to rise to the next level. This experience helped us hone our application form even further.
Identify skill sets and expertise
It is essential to identify in detail the required skills of the open position. This includes essential time and task expectations as well as the level of training you are willing to provide. Make sure to define performance expectations, the training time required to learn new skills and the cost calculations per training hour.
As part of our interview process, we identified four skill levels to evaluate a new fabricator of marine upholstery, wall panels and bedding.
Skill set requirements:
- Basic: Measuring, layout and cutting of materials such as fabric and vinyl.
- Intermediate: Patterning on-site or from measurements, cutting foam and leather, plus Basic skills.
- Advanced: Sewing fabric, vinyl and leather including topstitching, plus Basic and Intermediate skills.
- Excellent: Upholstery for exterior mezzanine, bridge and bow seating, as well as sofa, dinette seating and fitted bedding, including installation, plus Basic, Intermediate and Advanced skills.
Within these categories are numerous stages and expanded skills that require training for everything from layout of material to cutting unique foam shapes to the assembly sequence. Breaking down project requirements into discrete stages and skills is especially important when materials are job specific. It can be very expensive when a mistake occurs.
Calculate skill and compensation requirements
When we compiled a list of all the skills required for our typical projects, we were surprised to find we offer more than 43 different skilled tasks to our customers. We realized that even with someone who knew how to sew like the hobbyist, it would require 43 additional hours of training to get her skills to the required Advanced level. Adding up the cost of that training made it an easy decision to not continue with this individual. This process gave us a clear idea of the type of person we require and how to compensate a more skilled individual.
Knowing exactly what position you are hiring for and how much you are willing to pay in the short term versus the long term is essential when a new person is under consideration. Doing a detailed skills analysis can help you favorably increase the odds for making an excellent hiring decision.
Training opportunities abound
When you’re adding up training costs, keep in mind that training opportunities are not just confined to the shop. There are also learning centers and trade courses offered on job-specific themes that anyone can attend. Consider bringing key employees to regional and national MFA-sponsored seminars and workshops to help further their skills. Small group courses by other fabricators have proven invaluable for many marine fabricators. Some shop owners cover or share training expenses with an employee, and some educational expenses are tax deductible. I encourage you to contact MFA members for further advice on the benefits of attending conferences or trade workshops. The workshops are generally set up over a five-day training period with various topics on interior or exterior techniques and are available throughout the year.
YouTube tutorials can be a free addition to classroom and workshop training. These online videos are provided by hobbyists as well as skilled fabricators and marine suppliers who offer a variety of ideas and levels of expertise. In our shop, we have created our own videos of important details and techniques used during phases of projects that require new skills. These are invaluable reference points during disassembly and installation. Another plus of these videos is that customers love seeing their projects “in-process” when you post them on your website or Facebook page.
Online resources can help whether you’re training new employees or providing enhanced training for current employees. The Marine Fabricators Association (MFA) member how-to videos are a great resource. There are tutorials about setting up bimini tops, frame bending and more. You can find these at www.marine.ifai.com/resources/videos. Also consider taking advantage of Facebook groups such as The Marine Canvas & Upholstery Discussion Centre, Hood Canvas Fabrication Center and the Marine Canvas and Upholstery Business Owners Group. These closed groups include more than 1,374 members who post projects daily from around the world. You can find detailed information about tools, tips and recommendations for pricing, fabrication techniques, product resources, and occasional venting about project trials and successes, including how to deal with difficult customers.
I am fortunate to spend my days working on some of the most beautiful vessels in the world. I get to work with some of the most talented people in the world too, and through the MFA, that world keeps getting larger. Although finding new employees to welcome into that world can be challenging, it’s a challenge that can be successfully met by using some of the techniques described here. I wish you luck on your search.
Terri Madden owns Sand Sea & Air Interiors Inc. in San Juan, Puerto Rico.