Five Questions With: Neal B. Harrell Jr.

Updated 2:05 p.m.

In Rhode Island, how do the old (boatbuilding) and new (technology) sync? 

Home to yacht-design master Nathaniel Herreshoff, the Herreshoff Marine Museum/America’s Cup Hall of Fame and the International Yacht Restoration School, the boatbuilding legacy is certainly in place in Rhode Island. (It’s called “The Ocean State,” after all.) 

Neal B. Harrell Jr., president of Brooks Marine Group of Newport, a marine-management recruiter, looks at how the industry has bridged the old with the new, what tech has offered the field and what rough waters lie ahead.


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PBN: Your company specializes in management recruiting for the world of recreational boating. How has technology changed the industry in the last decade or so? 

HARRELL: Technology has absolutely transformed the way the many recreational marine-industry companies operate. We’re a fragmented industry, so some advances in technology are applicable to specific sectors of the marine industry, while others are not. For example, the marina sector of our industry has recently adopted a few app and smart-device platforms to help connect boaters with marinas.

Another example is boat manufacturers and the dramatic changes to the technology used to design and build boats: 3-D computer-aided design software, factory automation such as robotics and coordinate-measuring machines to cut parts. Obviously, marine electronics such as GPS, stabilization equipment and communications such as satellite phone or audio/visual elements have changed the way boaters use their boats.

PBN: Has this posed challenges for your organization? 

HARRELL: The challenge has been training the next generation of technology adopters. As an industry, we are having a difficult time finding qualified technicians to service boat engines … many of them simply don’t have the years of experience necessary to perform the work. Yet technology has also changed the landscape of service in that modern marine engines are computer-controlled and therefore demand someone savvy in technology to diagnose and repair newer-model engines. The older, more experienced technician may not be comfortable with new technology, whereas the young/inexperienced technician is but doesn’t have the experience necessary to work on older engines.

PBN: Technology is likely used and has evolved in areas such as engineering and lamination …  but have boatbuilding or any of the more “hands-on” fields been impacted as well?

HARRELL: I’d say technology has made its way to the production floor in a few areas. An example is computerized work instructions for boatbuilders, which brings with it visual aids of how parts go together, Q&A features in case the boatbuilder needs instant help, quality-control checklists and features to measure time, and materials required to perform the task. The same is true in a marina environment.

Newport-based company Dockwa is a good example. A boater can find a marina with available dockage, reserve the space through the app, pay for it and make requests for things [such as] fuel and provisions. The marina operator is then sent notification of the reservation through the app and is aware of the size and specs of the visiting vessel. Tremendous efficiencies are gained because there’s no need to call ahead, there’s no billing or accounting to deal with, and boat-slip availability is updated in real time.

PBN: This fall, a marine trade publication had an article on the robotics trend in marine shipping, specifically. Do you see this trend with your clients who are hiring?

HARRELL: I see a few forward-thinking companies beginning to embrace advanced technologies such as robotics … paint operations and in some cases, lamination processes are becoming automated. However, boatbuilding and repair is, and will always be, a labor-intensive process – virtually every boat is different, as is every service job.

Also, most boatbuilders are low-volume companies and somewhat customized, while automation caters toward high-volume, often repeatable processes. Automation is also often expensive, with many small, privately held boatbuilders simply not having the economic resources to acquire such technologies.

PBN: What kinds of skills are most in demand in the marine industry right now?

HARRELL: Far and away, trade skills are in most demand. Laminators, riggers (engine installers), electricians, carpenters, mechanics, welders, painters, etc. In fact, the marine industry faces a trades workforce crisis. It’s probably our No. 1 challenge as an industry; water access and the health of our waterways are two others. I’m happy to report that Rhode Island is leading the industry in addressing the trades workforce shortage. This is being spearheaded by our Rhode Island Marine Trades Association through programs [such as] apprenticeships and the introduction of marine-industry careers to young people.

Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributor.