When his mother was diagnosed with cancer, Justin Burns of Crystal Springs dropped out of high school at age 16 to help his family make ends meet. Working odd jobs, from cleaning deer to landscaping, Burns figured out through the years that he needed something more stable to provide for his family, including his new wife and child. That’s how Burns found himself graduating with a certificate from Hinds Community College, and heading to work full-time for Magnolia Marine, one of Mississippi’s leading barge companies.
Burns and nineteen other young men spent a week in December learning the safety hazards, terminology and expectations of working as a deck hand on a barge. This college’s involvement was made possible by a $2.3 million U.S. Department of Labor grant as part of a larger nine-college, eight-state consortium for community colleges along the Mississippi River. It’s part of the Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) Community College and Career Training grant program, a multi-year nearly $2 billion initiative. The grant project is aimed at expanding targeted training programs for unemployed workers, especially those impacted by foreign trade.
Working with the college is Maritime Services Group of Louisiana, a company that provides hands-on experience and promotes safety, team building and educational training. Together, Hinds Community College and Maritime are training employees of three leading Mississippi barge companies, Magnolia Marine, Yazoo River Towing and Golding Barge Line.
“These companies are not required to send their employees to this training,” said Tom McWhorter, CEO and instructor for Maritime. “They pay out of pocket to house and train these guys because they see how important it is. We are teaching these students about safety hazards, how to prevent injury and what to expect when they get out onto the water. They’re ready to jump right in as soon as they’re done, and that’s a benefit to both the employee and the company.”
So far, the program has graduated 20 employees, who all received their certificate of River Inland Decking Skills from Hinds Community College, and are ready to report for duty to their employers. Over the next three years, the college and Maritime will be providing one to two classes per month, graduating more than 300 trained employees, prepared to enter the field.
Some of the things they learn over the course of the week are how to properly wear safety devices such as respirators and protective clothing, which substances are potentially carcinogenic, how to do basic tow work, including soft lines and wire rope skills, and, most importantly, what to expect when they leave home for work.
The seven-day long training is conducted at a hotel in Vicksburg. Once trainees arrive, they are to conduct themselves as though they are on a real vessel; they must sign in with ID, wear appropriate safety attire, maintain the cleanliness of their quarters and spend hours working with equipment. The students are not allowed to leave to go home and have limited contact with their loved ones, all a simulation of what the real job will be like.
According to Casey Stubbs, crew manager for Golding Barge Line, the training is a huge bonus for the company.
“Back before we did training like this, we would hire a new crew and they would show up not really knowing what was expected of them,” he said. “They would spend hours each day trying to figure out the process of how things work. Now, our guys come on board already knowing the majority of what they will be doing. That saves us a lot of time and effort, but, most importantly, it prevents injuries and fatalities. Keeping our crew safe is a high priority.”
Breaking into the barge industry has a huge benefit for the employees, as well. After the training, all the students report to their companies as deckhands with salaries in the $20-30,000 per year range. After a period of only four years, deckhands can work their way up the ladder to become what’s called a pilot, making around $100,000 per year.
According to Dr. John Woods, Hinds Community College’s vice president of economic development and work force training, the college recognizes the great growth potential in river barge jobs. “This TAA grant will allow the college to train entry level deckhands for great, well-paying jobs,” he said.
This particularly enticed one student, Brock Perry of Pelahatchie.
“I knew when I graduated from high school that college wasn’t for me,” he said. “I wanted to find a career that didn’t necessarily require a degree, but offered a chance for me to advance, which is definitely a possibility in this industry.”
Logan Heineck of Starkville and Ryan Watts of Oxford both came into the barge industry after finding they needed more stable income. Heineck drove a delivery truck and Watts worked in fast food. Now they both have goals of becoming successful in a lucrative industry.
Burns says his ultimate goal has less to do with money and more to do with setting an example.
“I don’t want my kid to go through what I did; having to sacrifice to help your family. I want to be successful so that I can set an example of what it means to work hard and provide.”