NMC’s in-demand Maritime programs boast 100 percent employment rate

The Maritime Technology program has received more than 350 applications for fall 2019, with the application window still open until July 1.

Two Northwestern Michigan College programs are renowned on a nationwide level and can claim an exceedingly rare and desirable stat: 100 percent employment rates for program graduates.

Not long ago, the Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees in Marine Technology and Maritime Technology at NMC didn’t exist.

For the most part, community colleges in Michigan aren’t allowed to offer four-year degrees at all. In December 2012, then-Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill that enabled community colleges to grant bachelor’s degrees in a limited number of fields: culinary arts, energy production, concrete technology and maritime technology.

NMC jumped at the opportunity. According to Jerry Achenbach, superintendent for NMC’s Great Lakes Maritime Academy (GLMA), the academy was already offering a substantial 117-credit associate’s degree in Maritime Technology. To offer a BS in the subject, NMC needed to get to 120 credits or greater. GLMA added two classes – electronic charts and marine communications – and then set to work on the state’s accreditation process.

After a 50-page application and a two-day site visit from the accreditation agency, NMC had the go-ahead to offer a BS in Maritime Technology. The first two graduates of the program earned their degrees in January 2014. That commencement ceremony marked the first two bachelor’s degrees ever awarded by NMC, as well as the first two bachelor’s degrees ever awarded by a community college in Michigan.

Since then, the Maritime Technology program has evolved into one of NMC’s most renowned and in-demand offerings. So far, the degree program has received more than 350 applications for fall 2019, with the application window still open until July 1. The program can only accept 60 students each year because of space constraints on its training ship, the State of Michigan.

The Maritime Technology program offers two separate degrees: a BS Maritime Technology-Deck Officer degree and a BS Maritime Technology-Engineering Officer degree. In either case, students of the program – known more formally as “cadets” – must earn their merchant marine licenses as a condition of graduation.

That licensing process involves a four-day, seven-part exam at the end of the four-year degree program. Cadets pursuing a deck officer degree must also earn their Great Lakes pilotage license, which Achenbach says qualifies them to work on any vessel of any size, whether in the Great Lakes or on the oceans. Achenbach notes that most Maritime Technology cadets “go to sea on commercial vessels as officers upon graduation.”

The Maritime Technology program’s 100 percent employment rate is no accident. Achenbach says that, when the degree was accredited in 2013, the accreditation agency was adamant about not accrediting the program if there weren’t strong job prospects.

“They had a meeting with our board of visitors, which is made up primarily of the companies that operate large vessels in the Great Lakes,” Achenbach said. “And what one of those individuals on the board of visitors said was that 70 percent of the officers in his company could retire that year. So, you really have a graying of the workforce, plus you have turnover. As a result, right now, the industry can absorb everyone that we graduate.”

GLMA cadets also have a leg up, thanks to the school’s substantial resources for maritime and marine-related programs. For instance, because GLMA has the State of Michigan, Maritime Technology cadets get 360 days of sea time in the course of the degree program. GLMA also has multiple simulators that allow instructors to put students in realistic scenarios, mimicking everything from the bridge of a ship to the engine room.

NMC’s unique set of assets and resources has also been key in the success of another four-year degree program: the BS in Marine Technology. That program was introduced in fall 2015, but Hans Van Sumeren, the director of the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute, says the program’s roots go back a decade.

The story begins in the summer of 2009, when students of the Water Studies Institute took a new piece of sonar mapping technology out on Grand Traverse Bay. The equipment manufacturer had just spent multiple days at NMC, teaching students and faculty how to use the technology. The students’ first trek with the equipment helped pinpoint the location of the Lauren Castle, a tugboat that had sunk in 400 feet of water in 1980 and had never been recovered.

The discovery was a landmark for NMC, but Van Sumeren says it was also only the beginning of a bigger story. Before long, he was getting calls from industry employers, asking about students skilled in operating the type of equipment that had found the Lauren Castle.

“Companies called us and said, ‘Oh, you must be training people to be hydrographers,’ which is essentially a surveyor under water,” Van Sumeren said. “And we weren’t, because we didn’t have a program; we just found something. But what we did is we listened. We listened to what employers were looking for, and found there was an enormous gap between what the industry needed and what colleges and universities were producing.”

That revelation led to the creation of the Marine Technology program, which teaches students how to use mapping, surveying and other data collection equipment to learn more about what lies beneath the depths. Graduates of the program can build, test, troubleshoot and calibrate equipment, ranging from mapping tools to remote-operated vehicles. Jobs include hydrography, ocean engineering, roles with fisheries and more.

Van Sumeren notes that there are several factors that make NMC’s Marine Technology program unique. First, because of the GLMA infrastructure that was already in place when the program got its start, Marine Technology graduates finish with an average of 50 days spent aboard vessels. Van Sumeren says the average for most comparable programs is three or four days.

Second, since the mapping of the Lauren Castle, NMC has built up partnerships with many of the top equipment manufacturers in the marine industry. These companies lend NMC their equipment for hands-on instruction in Marine Technology courses, enabling students to get more real-time experience without costing the college more money.

“The idea is that companies are feeding us this equipment because then our graduates are going to be using – or suggesting the use – of their equipment to their employers,” Van Sumeren said.

The result is arguably the industry-leading bachelor’s degree program for marine technology in the United States.

“It’s not a trade program; it is a unique bachelor’s degree that has direct applications worldwide,” Van Sumeren said. “We are not an alternative to going to a university. We are the place to go for work in this field. And from that, students are seeing 100 percent placement. At a recent hydrography conference, we had companies that were looking for 50 people, and they would take any one of our grads almost sight unseen because they know what we are teaching and they’ve seen the success that our students have had.”

For Matt Moss, who earned NMC’s first-ever BS in Marine Technology in 2017, the level of field experience, networking, and industry support in the program mirrors his current work experience.

Moss works for an environmental dredging company near Muskegon called White Lake Dock & Dredge, where he conducts both pre- and post-dredging surveys to assist with everything from bidding projects to finding ways to increase dredging efficiency.

“I’m working with a lot of the same equipment that we had in the program,” Moss said. “Our company just purchased an autonomous service vehicle that we use for surveying, and it’s very similar to what I learned in school.”

Thanks in part to the success and high employability of graduates like Moss, the Marine Technology program has ample room to grow. Right now, NMC has 35 students enrolled in the degree path and has the capacity to double that number going forward.

The same isn’t true for Maritime Technology, which Achenbach says is limited due to the space constraints of the simulators and the State of Michigan vessel.

“To expand the program, you would literally have to build a new Maritime Academy,” Achenbach said.