The economy has not been the biggest problem for marine fabricators; it’s the lack of qualified workers to carry on the craft—this and the need to incorporate new equipment that can speed up the process and help small shops run more efficiently.
“These are the two ‘evils’ of our industry that no one has been able to figure out in the 27 years I’ve been doing this,” says Faith Roberts, Banner Canvas in Ham Lake, Minn. “There is a two-year learning curve just to do the basics, let alone the custom work. In 10 or 15 years there will be fewer of us. This is a hard job, and young people get disillusioned quickly.”
The situation is a catch-22, she adds, because the automated equipment that would help make the job easier and more efficient is a major investment for a small shop. She purchased new sewing equipment to speed up production, but a new plotter/cutter bed is also on her wish list. “Technology will be the driving force in the future sustainability of a custom fabrication shop; it’s finding the capitol to implement it into the floor plan of my shop,” she says.
Hood Marine Canvas Co., Merrimac, Mass., sponsors canvas workshops, which have grown in popularity every year, especially among younger attendees. Mark Hood promotes the trade through social media, providing timely information for his students and a platform to discuss marine canvas techniques. It’s good for the trade in general, he says. “There are not enough young people coming into the trade. I’m encouraged to see young people coming to our workshops because they’re the ones that are really going to embrace technology. We don’t teach the technology, but it’s the way many canvas shops will go in the future. Ten years from now it will be a lot different.”
Canvas shops are missing out if they don’t keep up with what is happening in the marine market, notes Jeff Viehmeyer, owner of Alameda Canvas and Coverings, Alameda, Calif. “New equipment that can create efficiencies and speed up the process is definitely the next step in the industry. Viehmeyer is also concerned about the next generation of skilled workers. “It’s an acute problem. As shops close, they’re not being replaced,” he says. “Our craft is increasingly appreciated for what it is: an art. People respect and like that about us. If we can make a living doing it, it’s not going to go away.”