The largest civilian employer on Whidbey Island builds and fixes giant vessels of steel or aluminum, but the company somehow manages to keep a relatively low profile on South Whidbey.
A visitor may not even realize Nichols Brothers Boat Builders is located on Holmes Harbor unless he or she drives down the right road in Freeland and catches a glimpse of the busy boatyard with huge cranes hovering overhead.
Yet officials at the boat-building company are hoping to garner more attention, especially from local job seekers, as a rising tide of work is about to converge on the boatyard.
The company currently has about 220 employees and an additional 10 people work there through a labor contractor. Officials are planning on hiring as many as 80 more people as projects gear up. The company has contracts that will keep it busy through 2021. About 85 percent of the company’s employees live on the island, and it’s not uncommon for generations of families to work in the yard.
The boat builder’s apprenticeship program will be an important part of filling jobs, according to Kevin Corrigan, human resources director.
He said apprentices earn a “living wage” as they get on-the-job training, which is supplemented by off-the-clock classes. If everything works out, they became certified as journeymen — and earn a very nice living — in three years.
Nichols Brothers has been successful in obtaining grants to expand its apprenticeship program to include seven trades, namely marine tester, marine pipe welder, shipfitter, marine pipefitter, machinist, marine painter and marine welder.
The company invested in virtual reality training, including a welding apparatus that incorporates real welding with virtual welding.
“We’re building the next generation of boat builders,” Corrigan said.
Pete Sinclair, director of planning, is very busy these days dealing with the influx and diversity of work, which includes a combination of custom boat building and the refurbishment of older vessels, as well as the unique aspects of steel and aluminum work.
“The industry tends to be cyclic,” he explained, “but right now we’re seeing an uptick nearly across the board.”
Nichols Brothers has a contract with Foss to build four new class ASD 90 tug boats, with an option for an additional six. The 100-foot tugs were designed by Jensen Maritime Consultants of Seattle. The delivery of the first four vessels will begin in the winter of 2020.
An upside-down, aluminum skeleton at the boatyard is the first of two 140-foot high-speed passenger ferries the company is building for Kitsap Transit. The catamarans will someday move passengers at a maximum speed of 36 knots.
Nichols Brothers is continuing its work with the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, which has overseen dramatic ferry ridership growth in the San Francisco Bay area. The Sonoma, built in 1976, will soon be en route to Whidbey Island to be completely refurbished.
Jeff Giese, director of manufacturing, said an entirely new boat could have been built for the amount of money it will take to strip and rebuild the Sonoma, a foot ferry with a retro style.
“There’s something about the styling, the feel of the boat that they like,” he said.
In addition, the boatyard continues to see a steady stream of service and repair jobs, including work for the Navy. A large barge in the water had recently stopped by for “a shave and a haircut,” Corrigan said.
The company made changes to the facility this year. Concrete was poured over a large area to allow for more work. A green sound wall was completed to soften the impact of the work on neighbors.
And as usual, the boat builders will supply the pyrotechnical barge for Freeland’s famous Celebrate America fireworks show on July 3.