Building the TikTok to Dockworker Pipeline

It was the end of the school year, and a bunch of fourth graders stood on a docked barge on Staten Island, transfixed by a face-off between a front-end loader and an excavator in front of a 90,000-ton pile of salt.

“It’s amazing, times 1,000,” said Raymond Boxer, 10, as cargo ships and the occasional garbage barge would glide by in the distance. “I’m glad I watched ‘Transformers’ before coming here, but this is cooler.” Then and there, he resolved to operate excavators when he grew up.

Ava Williams, 10, commented that a TikTok made from inside the excavator’s claw would go viral. And Kaywan Daniels, 11, asked about the net worth of the person who owns the equipment.

The students, from P.S. 31 in St. George, Staten Island, were visiting the Atlantic Salt Company, which imports road salt, as part of Maritime Careers of New York Harbor, a three-year-old educational program. Developed by Dawn Daniels, the director of programs at the Noble Maritime Collection, a museum that is part of Staten Island’s Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, Maritime Careers has six sessions, including some at work sites like Atlantic Salt. The goal is to introduce children to maritime culture and the many career opportunities that exist mere blocks from some of their homes.

“Connecting students to waterfront companies seemed far out of our realm, considering we’re a history and art museum,” said Ms. Daniels, who started the program in 2019. “But the numbers woke us up.”

She was referring to recent census data showing that 15 percent of Staten Island children under 18 live in poverty. “We realized we could be a pipeline to an industry we’re close with and have access to because a lot of local industry leaders sit on our board.”

“It’s important for students to get a sense of how huge the maritime industry is at an early age,” said Dawn Daniels, center, the head of the program.Credit…Dieu-Nalio Chéry for The New York Times

Ms. Daniels ticked off a list of waterfront businesses in Staten Island. Many are clustered on a stretch of Richmond Terrace, which runs along the island’s North Shore past the museum: Miller’s Launch, which has a fleet of 70 work boats that, among other things, take supplies and crews to tankers; Atlantic Salt, which handles about 350,000 tons of road salt each year out of its North Shore salt yard; Caddell Dry Dock and Repair, a full-service shipyard; Reicon Group, a marine construction company; and the enormous Global Container Terminals New York.

For the program, Ms. Daniels created a workbook with photographs and illustrated maritime characters who guide students on a tour of the waterfront, introducing them to various vessels, businesses, workers and to the landscape in general. This summer, she has been running weekly art workshops at the museum for sixth through eighth graders who have completed part of the curriculum.

“There are a lot of jobs on water on Staten Island, but even though kids see boats all the time, it just becomes something in the background after a while when you live here,” Ms. Daniels said.

“I want to show them what goes on behind all the fences,” she continued, referring to the view-obscuring security of the waterfront businesses. “It’s important for students to get a sense of how huge the maritime industry is at an early age so they can begin to set goals and learn about training and education options.”

To get funding for the maritime program, Ms. Daniels went to the Staten Island Foundation and Richmond County Foundation. Then in 2020, she won a $30,000 federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. At first, the program collaborated with three schools, working with about 100 fourth to eighth graders from each institution. Last year, five schools participated.

The Port of New York and New Jersey complex, the second-largest port in the United States, encompasses marine terminals in Brooklyn, Staten Island, Newark, Bayonne and Jersey City. In 2019, the port supported 506,350 jobs, a 26 percent increase over 2016, according to the most recent data from the New York Shipping Association.

But the growth comes as the maritime work force is aging, so programs that bring people to waterfront jobs are critical these days, said Hilary McCarron, the manager of port policy and planning for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the marine terminals.

“There’s such a breadth of career opportunities,” she said. “There’s a career segment that handles port jobs, like longshoremen, seafarers and forklift operators in warehouses. But different companies, like marine terminal operators, also have jobs in H.R., accounting, sales and customer service,” she continued. “Or say someone loves to swim: If you’re certified in scuba,” she said, there is work inspecting the dock posts that prop up the piers.

Enrollment in career and technical education programs increased in the 2019-2020 school year, the latest data available, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education. A report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center noted that agriculture operations was the fastest growing major at two-year institutions last year, increasing by 41 percent from the year prior. Construction trades saw the second-biggest increase within the same time period, up 17.5 percent.

At the New York Harbor School on Governors Island — where high school students train for maritime careers ranging from ocean engineering and vessel operations to marine biology research and professional diving — the number of applications has more than doubled since 2015, said Jeffery Chetirko, the school’s principal.

“I see Harbor School graduates working on nearly every ferry that crosses to Staten Island,” Mr. Chetirko said. “Opportunities now throughout the industry are greater than ever.”

Kamillah Hanks, a City Council member who represents Staten Island’s North Shore, has made the economic health of the waterfront a priority, and professional development is a critical aspect of that, she said.

“Staten Island is the epicenter of New York City’s maritime industry,” she said. “Anything that gets young people involved is crucial to Staten Island’s economy.”

The financial importance of the waterfront goes back centuries, which makes a course on its modern-day inner workings a fitting project for the Noble Maritime Collection. Located in a former home for retired seafarers, the museum is a tribute to John A. Noble, a mariner and artist. His paintings, drawings and lithographs largely depict the last days of the Age of Sail, just before ships transitioned to diesel engines. He lived on the North Shore for 40 years and often painted the waterfront industry and workers.

“As a sailor, he understood the huge role the maritime industry played in our environment, and he drew upon that for his work,” said Ciro Galeno Jr., the museum’s executive director. “The careers program directly speaks to his mission; Noble wanted people to be aware of what’s going on all around us on Staten Island.”

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