Tideflats Certification Program prepares Tacoma students for industrial careers

11/7/2016 | TACOMA, Washington

The bright red immersion suit seemed easy to wear on land, but when Foss High School senior Fidel Soto jumped in the water, he quickly lost his bearings, bouncing up and down in the survival outfit. 

“When you’re in the water you’re just bobbing left and right, and it’s hard to tell what you’re doing,” he said. After getting oriented to the cold-water suit Soto learned to deploy a life raft and link arms with others to create a bigger rescue target. 

Soto and 21 other Tacoma high school juniors and seniors underwent survival training during the inaugural Tideflats Certification Program, a summer partnership between Tacoma Public Schools, the City of Tacoma and maritime industry groups such as the Port of Tacoma, Foss Maritime Company and Safe Boats International. 

The program prepares Tacoma students to fill crucial jobs offered by the Port and other industry groups. Participants could earn the U.S. Merchant Mariner Credential, the essential qualification required to work on a ship, as well as certification in traffic flagging, federal workplace safety regulations and Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER). Students also received one high school credit. 

Tacoma ranks in the top 10 busiest ports in the United States. Preparing students for jobs and strengthening links between the school district, the City and the Port makes sense, said school district Deputy Superintendent Josh Garcia.

“The Port is such an asset to the community that the school district has a responsibility to help prepare students to be a part of it,” Garcia said. “It’s the district’s dream to be able to help students gain the skills and experience necessary to be part of industries that are so important to the community and the global economy.” 

New career pathway 
For students like Foss High School junior Lenwood Wilson-Cales, the Tideflats Certification program opened up new career possibilities. He initially felt skeptical about waking up at 6:20 a.m. during his summer vacation to participate. But as the program progressed, the training grew enjoyable. 

“I didn’t really expect to find any interest in the maritime industry,” he said at a program completion celebration. “It just seemed like sort of an elite class of people, and I didn’t think I could do it. But it was a very humbling experience to see what could be done. I could actually go out and be at sea or work at a port where I would feel right at home.”

High School students enrolled in the Tideflats Certification Program learn
maritime safety essentials. 
Lenwood’s mom, Marcia Wilson, said that for the past three years her son wondered what to do with his life. “Now he’s asking, ‘When will the fishing boats hire me?’ ” researching the Seattle Maritime Academy and wants to get involved in Tacoma Sea Scouts or a leadership camp. 

“I am hoping his career counselors are well-versed in maritime schools, because he now has a passion with his purpose,” Wilson said. 

Industry training 
Jon Kjaerulff, president of Seattle-based Fremont Maritime Services, led training for the Tacoma students in maritime safety essentials for the Merchant Mariner Credential, including first aid, CPR, personal survival and basic firefighting. His business rarely trains high school students. Most clients are individuals in their 20s paying themselves for training to get into the industry or people looking for a midlife career change. 

The training students receive for free in the Tideflats Certification Program gives them a major leg up when searching for jobs, Kjaerulff said. 

“We’re at a point with the industry where a lot of the older generation are getting ready to retire and there will be a big need,” he said. “These credentials will make the Tacoma students very attractive to prospective employers.” 

The Port of Tacoma generates 12,436 direct jobs, including longshore workers, freight forwarders and steamship agents, according to a study released in November 2014. Local supply chain and service provider companies provide thousands more industry jobs.

Tacoma Public Schools helps prepare students to fill those positions. Since 2013, the district tracks how many high school students earn industry certifications through Career and Technical Education classes. In 2016, 26.7 percent of high school seniors earned an industry recognized certificate, up from 1.4 percent in 2013.  

With the training earned through the new Tideflats Certification Program, Tacoma students interested in an industrial career start their job search with an advantage. 

Thirteen of the 22 participants completed all the requirements necessary to receive the full Mariner Certification, including passing training in first aid, survival, basic firefighting, personal safety and social responsibility and completing the application process through the United States Coast Guard (with the assistance of Tacoma-based training company Flagship Maritime). 

“Every person that’s gone through this program now has the chance to say ‘I have the certification, I have the training, there’s no excuse for you not to hire me if you have a roster that says I need people to hire,’ ” Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland told students at their program graduation. 

Wilson High School senior Syrus Penor finished the program optimistic about his future. Driving forklifts and fighting basic fires was new to him—and he loved the experience.

“This could help me later on with my resume, money, supporting my family,” he said. “It’s really fun, you learn a lot about survival and yourself and how to trust others, and about how networking and trade works. Opportunities like this don’t come all the time.” 

Looking ahead, Tacoma Public Schools wants to turn this year’s pilot program into an annual offering. The district plans a roundtable with community partners to explore how to sustain and expand the program next summer. Then high school career counselors can help students apply.

Students share Tideflats Certification Program highlights:

​ ​​​​​​​​​​
Sophia Blakeslee, Oakland High School 

“My grandmother found out about the program through the school district 
and encouraged me to give it a try. Honestly, I thought it was just for forklift 
operating and had no idea that it was for the maritime services too. I was
never interested in the maritime services and being on a boat, but after seeing 
what they do and what they’re about I would definitely give it a try. This might 
be the career for me. We had really good learning experiences. Basic firefighting 
training was probably my favorite because we learned how to operate the hose 
and put on the suits.”

​ ​​​​​​​​​​Kyle Smith, Lincoln High School

“My dad kept saying, ‘It’s a foot in the door for what you want to be when 
you grow up. Your whole career.’ I’ve always wanted to be a police officer 
or a firefighter. When I heard you could do firefighting with this program 
I was pretty excited.” 

   ​ ​​​​​​​​​​Fidel Soto, Foss High School 

   “My dad’s already in the industry. I thought it would be a good opportunity, because
   I wanted to see what my dad got into when he first came here 20 years ago. I know 
   things have changed a lot in the industry, but I want to get into the same area of 
   workforce that he does.”