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Port Tampa Bay faces ‘silver tsunami’ of graying tradespeople

Ripples of sizzling summer heat dance between the hulking steel underbelly of the ship and the broad black dry dock cradling it just off Channelside Drive.

Sweat-stained welders, metal workers, pipe fitters and electricians toil both underneath and on the deck of the massive 630-foot ship perched above Ybor Channel at International Ship Repair & Marine Services.

An immense underwater rock near Tampa Electric Co.’s Big Bend Power Station landed it here for repair of a hole in its bulbous bow — that odd-looking bulge at the front of the ship that floats above the waterline when its load is light.

Port Tampa Bay is home to four ship repair and dry-dock businesses, the only port offering such services between Mobile, Alabama, and Charleston, South Carolina. In Tampa, the industry and its ancillary businesses employ a couple of thousand mostly blue-collar workers.

It’s big and it’s ugly, this business of ship repair. But without it, seafarers and the cargo they transport could be dead in the water, industry officials say.

“They perform really important jobs and create sustainability” for the shipping industry, said Paul Anderson, the port’s president and chief executive officer, who likens the ship repair workforce to Norman Rockwell’s America. “They are welders, painters, scrapers and fitters. They are an extremely valuable asset.”

One of the challenges the port businesses face is what Dave Sessums calls the “silver tsunami,” the graying of the ship repair workforce. Sessums, vice president of International Ship Repair, said the port is working with Hillsborough County schools to ensure there are younger tradespeople coming up to replace those who soon will reach retirement age.

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The need for such businesses isn’t waning. The number of jobs in ship repair here actually increased from 6,755 in 2010 to 7,455 this year, said Jake Prokop, who oversees the Maritime Academy for Hillsborough County schools.

International Ship Repair, one of the largest at the port, opened in 1973 as DelValle Boiler Service, serving steamships, Sessums said. George and Carl Lorton purchased it in 1990, added dry-dock services and saw dramatic business growth.

“Until then, we were a bicycle shop, only doing topside repairs and traveling the world to work on ships,” Sessums said. While touring the dry docks on-site, he points to a platform he and others built using barges that otherwise would have landed at a salvage yard. He recalls sleeping on its deck before it was transported to Tampa because there was no money for a hotel room.

Today, the full-service ship and barge repair company’s workforce of 300, making anywhere from $11 to $25 an hour, repairs about 100 ships a year. The vessels range in size from 100 feet long and 500 tons to 650 feet long and 12,000 tons. The ships transport everything from fuel to phosphate, from containers filled with furniture to oil-field exploration gear.

Gulf Marine Repair offers the largest dry dock and ship repair operation at the port and has been in business for more than 50 years. Its services run the gamut, and it specializes in integrated tug and barge units and double-hull conversions for ships that carry liquid cargo, according to its website. Company officials did not return phone calls to comment for this report.

Tampa Ship LLC, owned by Edison Chouest Offshore, based in Cut Off, Louisiana, goes back to 1942. Its greatest local claim to fame might be that the late George Steinbrenner, principal owner of the New York Yankees, owned it in the 1970s and 1980s, said Lonnie Thibodeaux, director of corporate communications.

When Chouest purchased Bender Ship Building in Mobile in 2002, it acquired the Tampa shipyard. “We started first as a vessel company. We own and operate 250 vessels in the offshore oil and gas industry,” Thibodeaux said. The company also owns some scientific research vessels.

“We diversified over the years into shipyards to design and build boats for ourselves,” he said. Chouest now has five shipyards, including Tampa Ship, which employs 560.

“Tampa Ship did a number of things for Chouest, including helping with our backlog of new vessels,” Thibodeaux said. “Luckily, Tampa Ship has a great location. The other big positive is draft. In South Louisiana, we have silting issues in our waterways. It’s a very big problem. In Tampa, we have 30-40 feet of draft.”

The other positive about Tampa, he said, is its workforce. “Tampa has a reputation, that proved itself almost immediately, for a great, dedicated, experienced workforce.”

Tampa Ship’s “graving docks,” where water can be pumped out so ships can be repaired, can lift vessels of up to 150,000 deadweight tons and can accommodate ships up to 907 feet in length.

D.M.T., or Diversified Marine Tech Inc., is the smallest of Tampa’s ship repair companies, with 50 workers, but probably has been around the longest, said owner Gary McCormick. It is part of Diversified Environmental Services, but before McCormick bought it in 1988, the company was owned for many years by Astro Marine.

It serves shrimp boats and small yachts, up to 110 feet long and 25 feet wide, McCormick said. His crew once worked on the late and renowned national news anchor Walter Cronkite’s yacht, the Driftwood, he recalled. And McCormick became the owner of the yacht Xanadu, used by former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, when its previous owners didn’t pay their repair bill, he said.

“We do waterblasting, painting, engine maintenance, whatever is needed,” he said. “Most vessel inspections are done by the Coast Guard, but we get the boats ready.”

McCormick said he is proud to be part of the local ship repair community that employs so many welders, painters, electricians and other tradespeople.

“We were around when there was a big oil spill at the Skyway bridge in 1993 and did a lot of work on the cleanup,” McCormick said. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration archives, tank barges Ocean 225 and B-155 collided with the Balsa 37 freighter near the entrance of Tampa Bay. The Ocean 255 caught fire and burned for 18 hours. Approximately 32,000 gallons of jet fuel, diesel and gasoline discharged into lower Tampa Bay from the Ocean 255.

“It was great that all that equipment was here and available to clean it up,” McCormick said. “We have 40,000 feet of boom ourselves for if there is ever a problem.”

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The biggest problem at Tampa’s shipyards these days is a lack of young workers, said Sessums, International Ship Repair’s vice president and chairman of the International Propeller Club, a 450-member club at the port supporting the maritime industry and promoting maritime education.

Ship repair is hard work, dangerous work, Sessums said, which may be part of the reason for a lack of enthusiasm from a younger generation of workers that could fill the ranks.

Sessums heads the local education initiative to get more high school students interested in the ship repair business. He works with Prokop to create curriculum and develop the Maritime Academy for students at Jefferson and Blake high schools.

“The partnership between the port community and Hillsborough County public schools is based on providing our young people the opportunity to explore various careers in the maritime industry,” Prokop said. “Our goal is to match student interests with the exciting jobs in and around the port.”

And the port could employ many of those students in the future.

The Maritime Academy delves into every aspect of the industry, Prokop said. “It’s a hands-on problem-solving career-focused program,” he said, and includes excursions to allow students to “touch and smell and feel it for a career path.”

The graying workforce in ship repair, Sessums said, is a worldwide problem.

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