Fishing apprenticeship program aimed at getting military veterans back to work

PROGRAM TRAINERS: Fred Mattera, left, program director and trainer for the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island apprenticeship program for new crew members for the Rhode Island fishing fleet, with Jon Knight, owner of Superior Trawl. Knight is net-repair trainer for the center. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
PROGRAM TRAINERS: Fred Mattera, left, program director and trainer for the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island apprenticeship program for new crew members for the Rhode Island fishing fleet, with Jon Knight, owner of Superior Trawl. Knight is net-repair trainer for the center. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

Veterans often face a host of challenges when returning to civilian life after military service.

Among the biggest is entering and adjusting to the civilian workforce, which can differ considerably from military life. Rhode Island and its commercial fishing industry, however, are trying to make the transition easier and believe working at sea could help.

“For people who are struggling, maybe emotionally or with [post-traumatic stress disorder], an occupation where you can work outside with a team, build comradery and go to sea can help people become productive again,” said Fred Mattera, executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island in South Kingstown.

The center recently received $149,700 through the Real Jobs Rhode Island program, a workforce-development ­initiative under the R.I. Department of Labor and Training. The money is earmarked for an apprenticeship program for 16 individuals to participate in a four-week training and the program is supposed to try and recruit job-seeking veterans.

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“We’re going to try and get some veterans to come work outside, work with their hands and pursue this occupation,” Mattera said.

The idea stemmed from a similar apprenticeship program the center offered last year. The center received $105,000 through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which went toward training 12 people over three weeks. In addition to receiving all-new fishing gear, program participants also spent time learning safety skills and training at sea.

Each participant received a stipend of $1,000 at the end. The program ended in August and each apprentice got a job on a fishing vessel. Today, 11 of the 12 are still fishing.

“We had tremendous results,” Mattera said.

The program caught the eye of Real Jobs RI officials, who have had their own success in pairing job seekers with employers in various industries. Laura Hastings, a Real Jobs RI grant adviser, said the program was looking for new partners and the commercial fishing industry made sense.

“We feel like fishing is a critical industry in Rhode Island and we feel like it’s an industry that could use this sort of idea,” Hastings said.

The commercial fishing industry currently has a shortage of qualified fishermen because the workforce is getting older. The average age of fishing captains is in the 60s, Mattera said, and the pipeline is empty.

Hastings says the shortage marks a clear workforce challenge that’s developed over the last generation.

“Similar to landscaping and farms, fishing was handed over from generation and generation,” Hastings said. “The most recent generation was told instead to get their MBA and are now working at Fidelity, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s created a challenge” for the industry.

‘Working in nature and being in charge of people with the same goal is helpful for anyone.’
LAURA HASTINGS, Real Jobs Rhode Island grant adviser

Veterans, she added, could help solve the workforce puzzle. Commercial fishing, likewise, could offer an avenue for veterans to assimilate to civilian life, especially for individuals uninterested in the office environment.

“Working with your hands, working in nature and being in charge of people with the same goal is helpful for anyone, but it’s especially helpful for someone who isn’t inclined to sit at a desk,” Hastings said. “Fishery management is changing. It used to be that anyone who shows up at the docks would go on the boat, but that’s changing with technology and with personalities. It’s becoming a true career path.”

Whether veterans will be interested in pursuing a career on the sea in the Ocean State, however, will be answered as the partnership moves forward. Nonetheless, Kasim Yarn, director of the R.I. Office of Veterans Affairs, says he’s confident the effort will have a positive result.

“Being the Ocean State, we’re surrounded by the ocean, so it makes sense we should be leveraging it,” Yarn said. “We’ve identified a workforce need and who better to fill it than the veteran population?”

Yarn, the state’s first-ever veterans affairs director, joined the U.S. Navy in 1991 and moved to Rhode Island in 1995. He was assigned to the Naval Station Newport and simultaneously earned a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and a master’s degree from the Naval War College in Newport. He completed four deployments.

Yarn said the veteran population in Rhode Island overall is doing relatively well in terms of employment, but there’s always room for improvement and there are several different industries interested in hiring.

“I get calls from organizations weekly who are looking to hire veterans,” he said.

The need, he added, is in teaching veterans the skills they need to do the work required. He expects more partnerships, such as the one between DLT and the center, could emerge in the coming years and he hopes to help make the effort as smooth as possible.

“We want to help streamline this process and make it easier for veterans to get work and for employers to hire veterans. It works both ways,” he said. “What are the skills veterans need to be successful in this industry and let’s see about teaching those skills, so they’re good to go.”