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Ship repair resurgence gets double boost

Tampa Bay Shipbuilding wins a $13-million contract, while Hillsborough students will receive shipyard training.

The Tampa Bay area's resurgence as a ship repair center just received a major boost on both ends: new business in the shipyards and a new federally subsidized partnership with Hillsborough County Schools to train people in the trade.

Tampa Bay Shipbuilding & Repair Co. said Wednesday it has been tapped by oil barge operator Maritrans for a $13-million retrofit that will take thousands of round-the-clock man-hours over five months beginning in spring. Its task is to put a second hull on Maritrans' Ocean 244, a 520-foot-long barge capable of holding 246,000 barrels of oil.

The deal stems from the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Under the legislation, all single-hull vessels that carry oil must be retrofitted with a double hull by 2015. Tampa Bay Shipbuilding last year retrofitted the first single hull for Maritrans _ and the first for the industry.

Pleased with the results, Maritrans chairman and chief executive Stephen Van Dyck said he hopes to turn to the Tampa company several times as he retrofits the rest of his fleet over the next six years.

Mike Keenan, president of Tampa Bay Shipbuilding, is eager to build on the $30-million worth of business he has committed or completed for Maritrans. He just hopes he doesn't have to start turning business away because of a lack of workers. "I'd like to hire another 30, 35 people on my rolls right now," he said.

The labor squeeze has forced many of Tampa's shipyards to recruit across the country, from New Orleans to Baltimore.

Keenan, a 34-year veteran to the industry, admits it is a hard sell to newcomers: long hours in the searing heat and noisy environment of constant pounding. The trade-off is increasing stability and wages just shy of $13 an hour after trainees work their way to master craftsmen.

At least partial relief to the labor shortage is on the way.

Hillsborough County Schools, using a $200,000 federal grant, will start training high school students as well as unskilled laborers at the yards in the art of ship repair and rebuilding.

Details of the program, which does not have a name, are being worked out.

Mark Hunt, administrative resource teacher with the county's work-based programs, said about $70,000 is earmarked to build a classroom at Tampa Bay Shipbuilding to give students job-site training. Another $30,000 will go toward a smaller classroom at International Ship Repair.

The remaining $100,000 will upgrade the county's in-school program.

Under a program begun last year, Hillsborough County schools have trained about 25 dockhands in welding, ship-fitting and other jobs at the four area shipyards: Tampa Bay Shipbuilding, International, Gulf Marine and Hendry Corp. This is the first time it is targeting high school students.