CUNY Takes Job Placement to Next Stage:
Working on Harbor Waters

History of The Marine Education Program at Kingsborough
Boats Offer Careers for the Future

It’s a breezy day – very breezy – and Tony DiLernia’s classroom is heading for what seems to be certain disaster.

The waters of Sheepshead Bay have been whipped to froth by the wind, and the classroom — a heavily-built, twin-screw, 62-foot-long fishing boat — is bearing down on the Kingsborough Community College dock. Zach Bergen, a student from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, who is still a few weeks shy of his 20th birthday, is at the wheel.

Professor DiLernia says students need to learn old and new maritime skills, operating vessels and knowing all the equipment.
DiLernia, who runs the college’s marine technology program, is relaxed. “When you come in, come hard left on the wheel and back down on the port engine,” he counsels Bergen. “Be sure to bring your RPM’s down before you shift.” As the boat hurtles toward the dock, DiLernia tells his student, “I’m going to back off here. The boat is yours, unless you want me to jump in.”

All goes well until the wind catches the boat’s stern and messes up the approach. “OK, just pivot out and give it some juice,” DiLernia says calmly. On the second try, the boat moves smoothly into position and lands sweetly against the dock with a gentle bump.

Bergen hands the wheel to a classmate, Dennis Aquino, a 19-year-old from the Brooklyn neighborhood. “I came here two years ago,” Aquino explains. “I needed a major. I like the water. So?” He shrugs, smiles, and steers the boat away from the dock and out into the chop.

Bergen, Aquino and 22 classmates are navigating toward associates’ degrees that they can take directly to the maritime industry or to a senior college. “We have more jobs than graduates,” DiLernia says. “People in the industry keep calling me, saying, ’We’re looking to hire.’”

One of the frequent callers is Fred Ardolino, a former trawler captain who is building a 150-foot, 400-passenger “dinner boat” to join the one his company, New York Cruises, already operates from Sheepshead Bay.

Asked whether it was difficult to find trained crewmembers, Ardolino said, “Impossible is a better word. Basically, in New York you have a tremendous pool of people, but you don’t have people who are marine-oriented.

“Tony’s program is a really valuable resource. His kids, when they come out of school, are eager to be on a boat. And when they come out of the program, they know their way around a boat.”

In the past decade, job opportunities have soared in the harbor, as ferries proliferated along with dinner boats, sightseeing vessels and water taxis. The surge in jobs has allowed DiLernia to resurrect the maritime technology program he founded almost 20 years ago, when the outlook for a life and career on the water was much different.

Back in 1986, when DiLernia joined the faculty, the initial idea was to train students to work in the growing American fishing fleet. DiLernia had been a charter boat captain since 1978, starting on fishing boats in the same Sheepshead Bay waters where he now teaches. In response to the federal government’s efforts to revitalize the fishing industry, he organized the Kingsborough Maritime Technology program.

But the federal efforts—which included chasing away foreign vessels and subsidizing American fishing boats—proved altogether too successful.

Transport Displaces Fishing
Within a few years, fish stocks collapsed off the Northeast U.S., an area where they had once been so plentiful that ships were slowed as they plowed through the schools. Technological advances that made it easier to catch fish only hastened the process.

“We have more jobs than graduates,” Professor Tony DiLernia says. “People in the industry keep calling me, saying, ‘We’re looking to hire.’”
“By the early 1990s it was clear that America had done too good a job,” says DiLernia, who was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to the national Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee and still serves on that body.
“Training folks for a fishing career at sea was not what we should have been doing. We should have been discouraging them.”

But as the fishing industry went under, time and technology combined in more recent years to create other opportunities.

For example, DiLernia says the ferry business has been growing rapidly, with dozens of routes opening up on waters around the city, a development that picked up after September 11, 2001, as commuters looked for transportation alternatives.

In yet another trend, New Yorkers have been taking to boats for celebration and recreation, holding reunions and bar mitzvahs on the moonlit waters of the harbor.

As for changes in technology, new sophisticated equipment may have been bad for fish – making it increasingly difficult for them to find hiding places – but it had the positive effect of spawning a new generation of tech-savvy mariners and maritime entrepreneurs.

DiLernia’s job, in part, is to blend the old and the new. He points out that the old skills — seamanship, boat handling, maintenance, piloting, and rigging, everything that makes a sailor — can’t be neglected. In the modern world, a maritime education has to include everything from operating a deck winch to fixing a refrigeration system, from piloting with the help of a global positioning satellite to steering buoy-to-buoy in bad weather.

And — as DiLernia’s students found out — bringing a heavy vessel safely to a dock with a strong wind howling through the wheelhouse windows.

The students who took the wheel, while united by a common love of being on the water, had different histories and different plans for the future.

“I always wanted to travel the world, to go to all the ports,” said Adam Malave, a 20-year-old from Marine Park. “But more recently I decided that I wanted to work on the dinner boats. It’s a great experience. To me it’s peaceful being out here on the water, and I just wanted to be a part of this world. I’m not built to be in an office behind a desk.”

Motivated by Love of Boats
Thomas Treacy of Sheepshead Bay learned about the program from a brochure. He had been working with his father as a mechanic on marine engines and was looking for that optimal combination of book learning and practical experience. “I like boats,” he said. “This program isn’t just about book smarts; there’s a lot of hands-on work.” He plans to continue his education, focusing on diesel engines at a technical school in Ohio.

DiLernia said that diesel engine companies are hungry for people with the kind of training Treacy has received, and is still getting, and there’s no doubt a job will be waiting for him when he finishes his studies.

Bergen, after he finished his stint at the wheel, said he had found out about the KCC program online, and like Treacy was interested in hands-on learning. He takes two trains and a bus to reach the campus from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but doesn’t complain. “Someday I’d like to own my own charter boat business,” he said. “Until then, I’d just like to get as much experience as possible on boats.”

DiLernia brought Aleksei Sahharov to the program, even though the 28-year-old recent immigrant from Estonia doubted his English was strong enough to handle it. Sahharov knew and liked the water, having operated a sailing camp on the Baltic Sea as a teenager. As for his insecurities about his English, DiLernia gave him an impromptu quiz based on the contents of a boating manual.

“I told him he’d be fine,” DiLernia says. Sahharov has no regrets.

“Maybe I’ll look for a job on a tugboat,” he said. “It’s good work, and they need people now. Or maybe something to do with sailing, or running a marina.”

Then there are those students who looked into the crystal ball of their lives and did not like the image they saw: landlubbers sitting at desks and peering into a computer screen. “I wanted to change my major,” said Conrad Guzewicz, who came to this country from Poland eight years ago. “This seemed to be so interesting.”

Elaborating, Guzewicz said he left computers “because there were so many people in that field. Here I’m sure there’s a need for people.”

Guzewicz conceded he has not yet made an absolutely final decision on his career; but like a ship approaching harbor, he’s getting closer and closer. He’s considering going on to study science or engineering in a four-year college, with an eye toward working on research vessels. He’s also thinking of signing up with the U.S. Coast Guard.

DiLernia, who still operates a charter fishing-boat business out of an East River marina, is sometimes asked how his mission differs from that of maritime service academies such as SUNY Maritime at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island.

He points out that there is a notable difference between the lives of crew men and women sailing the rough waters of the ocean blue, on the one hand, and those of people employed on the admittedly murkier waters off New York City.

“Those schools train blue-water sailors,” he explains. “I tell people that we turn out brown-water sailors, for the harbor. But I also tell them that there’ll always be jobs for brown-water sailors.”

History of The Marine Education Program at Kingsborough
Dean Drucker (right) and Prof. Tuosto (left)
The Marine Education Program at Kingsborough Community College was conceived, organized, and implemented by Dr. Milton Drucker, the former Dean of Marine Education at Kingsborough and a former Professor at Queens College. Dr. Drucker in collaboration with City University of New York Chancellor, Joseph Murphy and Kingsborough President Leon M. Goldstein consulted and received approval and support from the Maritime Administration, the US Coast Guard under Admiral Yost, the Congressional Committee on Maritime affairs headed by Congressman Mario Biaggi and all the local and state legislators necessary to approve and financially support the program. Dean Drucker developed two advisory boards. One for the Fisheries program and the other for the Vessels Operations program. The program was unique in both New York State and the United States.

The State Education Department approved and registered the programs in Fisheries and Vessel Operations in less time than other ordinary curriculum proposals due to the swift political manueverings of Dean Drucker and President Goldstein.

The staff that Dr. Drucker started out with consisted of  Captain Tom Ford, and Ms.Gail Saccoccio. Dr. Drucker set out to employ the faculty and staff for the program. He searched among some of the best seamen and administrators in the city and university.  He immediatly hired Professor August Tuosto the former provost of the New York City College of T echnology and Professor Laxman Kanduri an expert in the field to administer the program and to design and write the curricula for the Fisheries courses. He also hired Captain Ken Kraisler to design and write the curricula for navigation and other vessel operations courses. Dean Drucker then went and negotiated the hiring of Captain DiLernia who was then working for the Board of Education and was in charge of the vessel “Pisces”.  Dean Drucker employed Mr. Dilernia as an adjunct while negotiating with Board of Education for the Vessel and trying to get waivers for Captain DiLernia to be hired as an Associate Professor. 

The  CUNY Board and the NYC Board of Education then approved the transfer of the vessel to KCC and the program was born. 

Boats Offer Careers for the Future
The Center for an Urban Future, a local think-tank, noted earlier this year that CUNY is a “job-training powerhouse,” with a vast array of programs putting students on career paths.

The report mentioned Wall Street, the tech industry and the public sector. But working on water? Who’s been thinking about that? Kingsborough Community College, for one. Leaders in the maritime industry say demand has been growing for qualified workers on tourism boats, ferryboats and other vessels regularly plowing the waters around New York.

Over, MTA, The Ferries Are Coming

Ferry routes have been blossoming on the waters off New York City, offering alternatives to public buses and trains, according to the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. A decade and a half ago, the Staten Island ferry was pretty much the only commuter boat service out there, experts say. Kingsborough Community College is steering martime graduates into jobs on the water. Graphic by the Community Mapping Assistance Project of the New York Public Interest Research Group, courtesy of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.

“Our members have been expressing this need to us constantly,” said John Groundwater, executive director of the Passenger Vessel Association, a group representing 550 maritime businesses around the country, including Circle Line and NY Waterway.

College-based training programs such as Kingsborough’s are desirable, Groundwater said, because companies want employees who possess basic deckhand skills and are also educated and well-spoken.

“The better qualified your crew, the better the customer experience,” Groundwater said in a telephone interview from his office in Arlington, Va.
Industry sources say there are a few thousand people working in the city’s maritime sector, and the number of those on harbor boats is increasing every year.

“Without a doubt there are many more opportunities now for introductory level jobs, for career paths in the maritime industry, particularly on the water taxis, the ferries” and other types of vessels, said Angus McCam, captain of the Shearwater, a classic charter sailing boat operating out of the North Cove marina, near the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan.

McCam said he would like to see more young people enrolling in college courses like those at Kingsborough, because maritime workers should have a broad exposure to the technical and other skills offered in a college setting.

“They have a good, longstanding program,” he said.

Kingsborough maritime Professor Tony DiLernia says that the program is more than good; it’s unique. “We’re the only non-military (maritime) program on the East Coast,” he said.

Started in 1986 by Milton Drucker, now retired dean of Kingsborough, and strengthened later by Dr. August Tuosto, its current director of community relations, the college has about 60 students in its maritime program. Its officials say they get jobs for all their graduates.

“Out of our program, it’s one hundred percent employment,” said Michael Goldstein, Kingsborough’s spokesman. “The demand is with water taxis, dinner boats, tourist boats and tug boats. There really are a lot of opportunities.”

State labor statisticians say there has been an overall decline in maritime industry employment, citing declines in ocean cargo jobs, for example; but professor DiLernia points out that there is a difference between “blue water” work—like on cargo ships that sail the ocean—and “brown water” work—around New York Harbor, for example.

New York City is experiencing a kind of boom along its waterfront, as planners, politicians and businesspeople realize ferries and pleasure boats are the wave of the future, one expert says.

“People are talking about water-borne transit as a way of moving people around in a cost-effective manner,” said Jonathan Bowles, research director at the Center for an Urban Future, which in April published “CUNY on the Job,” the report analyzing CUNY’s success in placing students on career paths.

“It’s already happening,” Bowles said, talking about the increase in water transportation around the harbor. “The growth between New Jersey and Manhattan has been incredible in the last couple of years. It’s started to happen between Brooklyn, Manhattan and parts of Queens and the potential for growth is immense.”

As for Kingsborough’s decision to fortify its maritime program, the director of the Center for an Urban future said CUNY has been putting its focus where the money is. And that includes the harbor.

“Based on the research we did for the report it’s clear that the City University of New York is at a place where it puts a premium on being reflective and responsive to the needs of the local economy, and that includes everything from Wall Street to light manufacturing to health care . . . and the water,” said Neil Kleiman, director of the center and author of the April report.