Since 2008, high school students on the upper Texas Gulf coast have been getting a first-hand look at maritime careers in their own backyard.
Texas A&M University’s Texas Sea Grant College Program is a partner in Camp SeaPort, a weeklong day camp run by the Port of Port Arthur. The camp is the brainchild of Port Commissioner Linda Turner Spears, who recognized that while existing career outreach programs in the area focused on the petrochemical and service industries, they did little to promote maritime job opportunities. With the support of the other Port Commissioners and the Port of Port Arthur, the camp was launched in 2008, and in 2014 the camp added a second phase to the camp for graduates of the first.
While the port has remained economically stable, the community of Port Arthur faces an unemployment rate higher than the national average, decreased high school graduate rates and a declining population. Camp SeaPort’s aim is to encourage young people to stay in the community after they graduate from high school.
“It’s an outreach opportunity for our local community, not just for at-risk kids, but all youth in our area,” said Deputy Port Director Larry Kelley. “We want them to see that there are many, many jobs, and you don’t have to go to sea for a month at a time, there are a lot of land-side jobs, too.”
The teens interact with a wide range of maritime professionals, all of whom volunteer their time. Kelley said that while no two years are the same, past groups have met with tug boat and barge operators, listened to presentations from the local pilots’ association, visited working shipyards and all the area’s ports, been introduced to maritime programs at nearby universities, and spent time aboard U.S. Coast Guard vessels and at the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit to learn about the skills needed for the different positions there.
He said the students are shown the vital role of a port as the nexus of multi-modal transfers — ship to barge, ship to truck, ship to rail, and vice versa — and the complicated logistics involved in moving cargo through the port.
“We hope that, after the camp is over, the students have a fundamental understanding of how the transportation system works in our area, and how dependent our region, state and national economy are on marine transportation.”
The new second phase of the program focuses on two areas: boat construction and the culinary arts. Participants build a small-scale working boat and learn about the management techniques and organizational skills needed aboard a ship’s galley. Kelley said both activities foster developmental skills through applied STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics). “Camp SeaPort helps youth build their own STEAM-powered boat for the future.”
Terrie Looney, the Jefferson and Chambers County Coastal and Marine Resources Agent for Texas Sea Grant and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, is a co-director of the program. She teaches the boat-building segment of the program and also developed the marine science curriculum, helps with program logistics, and leads participants aboard a waterborne education vessel for an ecological tour of the Trinity River with hands-on activities to learn about coastal resource management.
“Most of the careers have specialized training, but many can bring the kids on pretty much out of high school,” Looney said. “The students learn that they don’t have to leave the area to find good-paying jobs.”