By Mark Cardwell

To hear Catherine Dutton tell it, there have never been as many career opportunities for young people in the Canadian marine industry as there are today. But she says the challenge for marine training facilities across the country is to continue to develop and refine courses and programs that will both attract and adequately train a sufficient number of certified seafarers for the marine industry.

“It’s a big challenge getting kids to explore and train for a career that will require them to be away from home six months of the year,” said Dutton, head of the School of Maritime Studies in St. John’s, Newfoundland since 2000.

“We don’t hide that fact, that it is a lifestyle issue, but it does influence our recruitment efforts (and) program design.”

According to Dutton, the many new and enhanced programs and facilities at her school are a good example of the efforts being made to meet Canada’s modern marine manpower needs.

By far the largest of the three schools that make up Memorial University’s Fisheries and Marine Institute, the school currently has about 600 students enrolled in 20 certificate and diploma programs that range from bridge watch and marine diesel mechanic certificates to bachelor degrees in maritime studies and technology and master’s degrees in marine studies and both maritime and technology management.

“We keep growing to meet the evolving scope of the marine industry,” said Dutton. “We offer everything from training for foot-in-the-door kind of jobs to full-blown degree studies for master mariners and marine professionals who want to advance their careers (and) pursue opportunities both on and off ships.”

The school also designs and provides specialized, short-term training courses for as many as 7,000 marine industry workers a year.

Most of them are from private companies involved in the offshore industry.  But the school also trains employees and sailors with Transport Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Navy.

The largest of the six Transport Canada Marine Safety-recognized training facilities across Canada – the others are the British Columbia Institute of Technology (Marine Campus), the Nova Scotia Community College and the Canadian Coast Guard College in Halifax, Ontario’s Georgian College (Owen Sound campus), and the Institut Maritime du Quebec, which is headquartered in Rimouski.

Memorial’s School of Maritime Studies has a world-class reputation in two specialized areas.

The first is survival, an area of research and development that has received significant attention – and much public and private sector funding – since the deadly Ocean Ranger incident in 1982 and, more recently, the 2009 helicopter crash off Newfoundland that claimed the lives of 16 offshore oil workers.

Dutton said that Exxon recently “invested” in the building of the school’s latest addition: a full environmental pool (complete with a mock helicopter in the water) that can generate realistic conditions such as waves, rain and helicopter sounds.

The second specialty area is marine simulation.

The school became the first in North America 20 years ago to install a full-mission bridge. Since then, the simulator’s capabilities have been updated and enhanced to include motion as well as cutting-edge visual and sonar effects.

“We have developed a model of St. John’s harbour that blows you away,” said Dutton.

Other specialized training tools include a propulsion plant that features a ballast control simulator and the development of training software and databases for everything from ports to ice.

Those tools, said Dutton, help to attract young people to a field that is competing with a number of other industries that are also doing well in a have-province that is now rich with oil revenues.

“We’re fortunate in that we’re an island so people grow up around water (and) have a history on the water,” she said.  “And having the offshore oil industry puts a marine career in their minds.”

Still, she credits the school’s renown and its world-class simulators with catching the eyes of youth in recruitment efforts aimed at high school and college students across the Maritimes and as far East as Ontario.

Captain Colin MacNeil, too, knows the power of attraction of cutting-edge technology among today’s youth.

As the coordinator of marine programs and a teacher at the Great Lakes International Marine Training and Research Centre on the Owen Sound campus of Georgian College since 2006, the master mariner has witnessed a rapid rise in the number of students who have enrolled in the school’s marine navigation program since 2008, when the school unveiled a new $8.5 million bridge simulator with an 18-foot screen.

The problem, he added, is that the marine navigation program now overshadows the school’s marine engineering program, which has less flashy features like line tracing simulators and a workshop with diesel and machine engines.

“The marine industry is crying for marine engineers but we struggle to fill that program,” said Capt MacNeil.

The challenge for schools, he added, is to keep their training facilities and programs up to date and to work with industry in an effort to make kids aware of the fact that marine industry offers well-paying jobs with great benefits.