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Cabras Marine President says ship repair has bright future in Guam
by Steve Limtiaco, Pacific Daily News
The pandemic has limited access to Asian shipyards and brought more military ship repair work to Guam.
But the island’s ship repair industry, which once employed 4,000, needs to rebuild its local workforce and its reputation to grow, said Joe Cruz, president of Cabras Marine Corporation.
Cruz was guest speaker Wednesday at a meeting of the Rotary Club of Northern Guam at the Hilton Guam Resort & Spa.
As it stands, Guam’s ship repair industry is limited primarily to work above the water line, bringing workers and equipment pier side to work on ships where they’re moored, he said. Off-island experts are flown in to help with specialized work, he said, and several local businesses provide different services as subcontractors.
Cruz said there is no place for Guam to operate a large drydock, even if it had the large number of workers required to operate one. Cabras Marine operates a small drydock, capable of lifting its tugboats — and also some Coast Guard vessels — out of the water.
Cabras Marine, which started doing business here in 1975, providing tugboats, towing and other marine services, expanded in 2011 to include ship repair, Cruz said.
It currently competes with Guam Industrial Services and Seafix for ship repair jobs solicited by the military. Cabras Marine has the only waterfront ship repair facility on Guam, Cruz said, which operates on leased property at the port.
Cruz is co-chairman of the governor’s Economic Diversification Working Group, which is examining several industries, including ship repair, to diversify the island’s economy beyond tourism.
“We believe it’s a bright future,” he said.
Few ships are going to Asia for repair, Cruz said. They could go to Korea, but the capacity there is limited, he said, and ship repair facilities in Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand haven’t really opened up yet.
“We had a real opportunity to prove ourselves and we have. We were able to do the kind of things that weren’t happening in Asia — everything closed. Ships had to get support and Guam became the source of that support,” he said.
“What we’re prioritizing is surface repair, workforce development, building capacity and establishing a trust and confidence level with the U.S. government,” he said. “With the U.S. government, you’ve gotta meet their expectations. You’ve gotta meet their standards. If they’re not happy, they won’t bring ships here, and we didn’t want to lose that chance.”
The military-operated Guam Ship Repair Facility, which once employed thousands of Guam residents, closed in 1997 as part of military downsizing and realignment. At the time it closed, it employed about 800 workers.
Guam Industrial Services was contracted to operate out of the former ship repair facility, then Cabras Marine took over the contract for four years, but the military closed the facility in 2018.
“One of the things that we have to do, that we are doing, is workforce development,” Cruz said. “You can’t rely on temporary labor to succeed. We need to create.”
As an example of the need, Cruz said a recent job for the military required 200 workers, but Cabras Marine currently employs only about 150. That meant working seven days a week, on overtime, to complete it by the deadline, he said.
Cabras Marine, working with Guam Community College, has participated in four ship repair boot camps, Cruz said, with two more boot camps scheduled to start during the next couple of months. The 12-week boot camps provide free training for prospective ship repair apprentices, but no compensation unless they are hired.
Cruz said Cabras Marine is looking for candidates with good work ethics. It is now focused on recruiting high school graduates and getting high school students interested in careers in ship repair.
Before 1997, federal apprenticeship programs in ship repair and public works provided a career path for high school graduates, Cruz said.
“These are people, after four years, driving nice cars and (building) homes. That was caused by the ship repair situation in those days. We believe that can happen again,” Cruz said.