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HomeNewsLocal governmentSenators Back Marine Scholarship Bill

Senators Back Marine Scholarship Bill

Sen. Frett-Gregory chairs the Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance meeting Tuesday. (Photo by Alvin Burke Jr. Barry Leerdam, Legislature of the Virgin Islands)

A proposed law creating a scholarship for people interested in studying to work in the marine industry received enthusiastic support in a legislative hearing Tuesday.

Educators and maritime insiders told the Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance of the potential growth in the marine industry, which needs skilled workers of all sorts — seagoing jobs like captains, pilots, mates and marine technicians, as well as shoreside marine industry employees like naval architects, service managers, marine surveyors, and dockyard repair experts.

Kyza Callwood, chairperson of the Virgin Islands Board of Education, said the maritime industry played a crucial role in the economic development of the Virgin Islands and threw his support behind the scholarship bill.

“Establishing a scholarship program of this magnitude demonstrates a commitment to investing in the local workforce. This helps individuals in the Virgin Islands access education and training, empowering them to contribute their skills and knowledge to the maritime industry,” Callwood said. “A well-educated and skilled maritime workforce enhances the global competitiveness of the Virgin Islands. Trained professionals can contribute to the industry’s innovation and adaptability, positioning the region as a competitive player on the international stage.”

Committee Chair Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said, like St. Croix’s agricultural potential, engaging young Virgin Islanders in the maritime industry was a missed opportunity for too long.

“I only have one question: What took us so long?” Frett-Gregory said. “We know as Virgin Islanders what the marine industry means to us.”

Richard Difede, president of St. Croix-based boat builders Gold Coast Yachts, said the sector was growing and high pay was being offered to meet demand.

“Mariners, tradesmen and marine transportation specialists are in high demand as the labor shortage that has impacted countless shoreside industries has also impacted the maritime trades,” Difede said. An able-bodied seaman could command an $83,000 salary, he said, and a skilled naval architect could realize $160,000 annually. A port engineer could be paid between $92,500 and $187,000.

Seemingly, every sector of the maritime industry was hiring — from cruise ships to tugboats, private yachts and ferry operations. By some estimates, Difede said, the industry could need more than 31,300 full-time employees for the burgeoning offshore wind farm industry alone. “The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects there will be 8,400 openings for water transportation workers each year, on average, over the next decade,” he said.

The maritime scholarship would likely be $10,000. Details of the scholarship, such as the exact amount to be appropriated, when the scholarship might start, and how residency requirements would be counted, had yet to be ironed out.

A scholarship recipient would need to work in the Virgin Islands for the same amount of time that they received scholarship funding, said Sen. Angel Bolques Jr., the bill’s sponsor.

Representatives of the USVI Port Authority and others said the marine industry was vital to the Virgin Islands’ economy.

Oriel Blake, executive director of the Virgin Islands Professional Charter Association, said interest in the maritime industry had been strong on St. Thomas and was quickly growing on St. Croix. And there’s good reason to lean into it.

Federal agencies have estimated about 60 percent of the USVI economy is supported by tourism, with more than one million tourists engaging with the marine industry a year, Blake said. That puts the charter boat and related industries as bolsters for about 30 percent of the USVI’s gross domestic product.

Blake’s charter association offers swimming and sailing programs for teenagers, marine apprenticeship opportunities, on-the-job training, and marine technical apprenticeships for young adults.

“Not just down to the money, it’s a recognition of the opportunity,” Blake said in support of the bill. “It’s a chance to be a conversation that is exciting to the youth of today and the future of tomorrow about their chance to be captains, marine technicians, and to stay in the Virgin Islands growing the tourism sector’s maritime industry is what this bill is about.”

She said she’d recently met with Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and BVI Premier Natalio Wheatley about closer charter industry partnerships for a united Virgin Islands product.

Camille McKayle, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of the Virgin Islands, said the university had long sought to help local students enter the maritime industry. In 2018, UVI created a Bachelor of Science in Maritime Management degree that partners with existing maritime academies or institutes. Students can complete the maritime portion of their degree off the island and then come to UVI to complete the degree with business courses.

“The business education in combination with expertise and hands-on experience in the maritime industry will open doors for long-term and sustainable opportunities within the maritime industry, for example, ship management, port management, logistics management, brokering, and other maritime trade and sales positions. This degree will allow students to supplement their technical expertise with the business acumen needed to participate in or lead a successful business in the maritime industry. Though the degree is available, we have yet to have a student pursue it,” McKayle said. “The programs that end in the Virgin Islands, persons are more likely to stay in the Virgin Islands.”

In the afternoon session, the committee heard from labor officials who said the hospitality industry was growing quickly.

Labor Commissioner Gary Molloy and team were at the committee in favor of a law strengthening unemployment insurance. Cutting the length of time a person could collect unemployment benefits — from 26 weeks to 16 weeks — while keeping the total amount available the same would hasten return to work.

“While some may view this reduction as diminishing the safety net provided by unemployment compensation and limiting benefits, it actually has two main advantages. Firstly, it maintains the overall funding for unemployment compensation at a similar level while encouraging individuals to rejoin the workforce within a short period of time. Secondly, extensive research indicates that many claimants seeking benefits can secure employment and cease relying on benefits within a 16-week timeframe,” Molloy said.

The Virgin Islands needed to give itself more leeway in clawing back overpayments, he said. Only the Virgin Islands and Hawaii restrict themselves to a two-year window to reclaim fraud or non-fraud unemployment insurance overpayments. Most states have no time limit at all.

Both bills were voted on favorably and sent on to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary.

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