Students study a diesel engine as part of a 28-day marine engineering “boot camp” offered by West Kentucky Community & Technical College. The college was designated as a U.S. Maritime Center of Excellence for Domestic Maritime Workforce Training and Education in 2021, the only such designation of 27 centers nationwide specifically for brown-water mariners. (photo courtesy of West Kentucky Community & Technical College)

Kentucky Community College Offers Brown-Water Focused Programs

Mariners interested in earning a college degree, upgrading their skills or earning Coast Guard-approved certifications can do so with programs that fit their schedule and give credit for their work experience through West Kentucky Community & Technical College (WKCTC).

Last year, the college, based in Paducah, Ky., earned a U.S. Maritime Administration’s (MarAd) designation as  a Center of Excellence for Domestic Maritime Workforce Training and Education. Only 27 institutions around the country received Center of Excellence designations in 2021, and WKCTC is the only one with a curriculum geared toward brown-water mariners on the nation’s inland waterways, said Kevin O’Neill, WKCTC vice president of regional workforce training and economic development. He said it took four years of working with industry and government sources and refining the curriculum to obtain the designation.

Being a MarAd-designated Center of Excellence means, among other requirements, that the college must engage or collaborate with the maritime industry and employer-led maritime training practices as well as support the workforce needs of local, state or the regional economy and build on science, technology, engineering and math competencies for future workforce maritime programs. In return, MarAd offers donation of surplus equipment, temporary use of MarAd vessels and assets and available appropriated funding and makes MarAd subject matter experts available to the program.

“Our collaboration with these institutions represents an important expansion of MarAd’s role in supporting maritime education and will help form pathways to good-paying American jobs in our nation’s maritime industry,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in announcing the designations.

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At WKCTC, mariners can choose from academic or workforce training programs.

Online Academic Options

For mariners interested in earning a college degree, WKCTC offers an associate’s degree in applied technology through its marine technology program.

Students can choose from four career tracks for the degree: marine culinary management, marine engineering, marine logistics operations and wheelhouse management.

Although the program requirements can be completed in two years of full-time study, “We have some people who take one class a semester or may take two or three, so it may take them four years to get an associate’s degree,” said Ron Robbins, marine technology program/instructor, highlighting how the program works with students individually to make sure their needs are met.

For students who would like to take a few courses and earn a certificate but don’t want an entire degree or to invest as much time, WKCTC also offers certificate programs in marine culinary, marine engineering, marine industry and marine technology business. 

Counselors can help prospective students determine their needs and which program will best fit them. Both the degree and certificate program options are offered online and scheduled in a semester format but keeping in mind that mariners often need flexibility because of their work schedules, Robbins said.

“Because all of the classes are online, there’s probably a little more flexibility, especially for the marine courses because we know the employees are working on boats so they don’t have continuous connectivity to the internet,” he said.

That may mean that students can schedule completion of their assignments during their time at home instead of worrying about tests or assignments coming due in a short window when they happen to be on the boat.

O’Neill said the program came about in 2010 after discussions with the maritime industry about how to move deckhands up the career ladder. As it says on the program description webpage, “For years, it was not uncommon for a deckhand on a towboat with no higher education to work his way up the ladder to become a captain or chief engineer. Today as technologies are added and new U.S. Coast Guard regulations are put into place, individuals are finding that working on America’s inland waterways requires not only a love of the waterways but also a commitment to continuous learning.”

The program is designed to give professional mariners the opportunity to establish themselves as leaders in the industry as well as to improve their opportunities to advance professionally, O’Neill said. Additionally, it allows mariners already more established in their careers to earn their college degree without having to sacrifice time away from their jobs.

People who have Coast Guard licenses—either engineering or pilothouse licenses—can get course credit for them, depending on which licenses they have,” Robbins said. “That helps them progress a little bit faster.”

Military experience also translates into academic credit earned, especially for those with experience in the Navy or Coast Guard or on small boats in the Army.

The college has looked to subject matter experts in the fields to teach the courses. One is a Coast Guard employee, Robbins said. Marine engineers teach the engineering track whenever possible. A local television meteorologist teaches an applied marine weather class.

Examples of core classes from the curriculum include technical mathematics, development of leadership, anatomy of a towboat, basic marine safety, marine crew wellness, introduction to homeland security and introduction to emergency management.

Technical career track class options include ones for marine electronics, diesel, fluid systems and refrigeration, piloting and navigation, shipboard deck operations, inland river systems, transportation management, sanitation and safety and cost and control.

In-Person Workforce Training

In contrast to the online academic options, WKCTC also offers a marine training program that is in-person and hands-on. Depending on the topic, classes are located either in the Marine Way Training Center, 631 Marine Way, Paducah, on campus at the college’s emerging technology center or at the Purchase Training Center, located between Paducah and Mayfield.

Barry Carter, WKCTC’s marine workforce training liaison, said students may spend time working on a diesel engine, in a simulator where they can see a video of where they are going, a radar screen and a Rose Point electronic navigation chart, outdoors or in a classroom.

Many of the programs are shorter than traditional courses and offered multiple times a year.

“These courses are reviewed by the Coast Guard,” Carter said. “Our instructors are approved by them.”
One popular course is a 28-day marine boot camp for engineers developed by request with an industry partner. 

“We’ve had students from as far away as Washington state come in and attend our classes,” Carter said.

He noted that enrollment in the programs is growing, with about 250 students expected this year. Courses include electronic charting software using Rose Point, marine shipyard competent safety training, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration 10-hour general marine industry training and a variety of marine firefighting courses aligned with Coast Guard credentialing requirements.

O’Neill said the classes have become so popular that the college is already planning some additions and enhancements to its Marine Way Training Center facility to continue to offer top-of-the-line offerings for students.