TSU maritime program trains the next generation of port professionals
By Rod Evans
It’s as much a rite of summer as spending days at the beach or hanging with the guys until the wee hours around the Xbox console. For high school graduates, this is time of year when decisions are made that could have a far reaching impact on their life, which is why many recent grads recoil at the simple question posited by everyone from Aunt Edna to their best friend: what are you going to major in?
Deciding which career path to take is daunting thanks to the myriad factors that go into deciding a future occupation. Earning potential, the number of jobs available, the type of degree required and assessing the demands of a possible career choice, both physical and emotional, are some of the more vital factors to consider.
For students living in southeast Texas, the proximity of the Houston Ship Channel and the Port of Houston creates a fertile ground for career paths thanks to the enormous impact the industrial complex has on the region’s economy. In order to help train students to fill the abundance of jobs either directly or indirectly affiliated with the port, Texas Southern University (TSU) partnered with the Port of Houston Authority (POHA) four years ago to launch the school’s ground breaking Maritime Transportation Management and Security program.
“The Port of Houston Authority called and asked us for a proposal for a four-year program that focuses on land side jobs,” said program coordinator Ursula Williams. “The program officially started with a gift from the Port of Houston for $2 million and we launched it in 2010.”
Graduates of the program receive a bachelor’s of science degree in maritime transportation management and security, which Williams says makes them qualified to hold positions such as freight logistics specialist, shipping manager, port manager and operator, port security officer, maritime policy maker and environmental compliance manager. She adds that 20 students have graduated from the program since its inception and about 60 students are currently enrolled in the program.
“The courses offered include a basic introduction to maritime transportation, maritime law, American maritime history, maritime security, port and terminal operations management, cargo operations, risk assessment, environmental law and international business and shipping,” Williams said.
According to Williams, it’s the first degree program focusing on maritime security and management to be offered at a Houston area university and is the first such program offered by a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) in the nation.
She says the program’s graduates are working at employers that include the Port of Houston, the U.S. Coast Guard, FedEx, Gulf Stream Marine, Walmart Distribution and Kirby Inland Marine.
The 121-hour program also allows for hands-on experience and internship opportunities that allow students to build relationships with potential employers and get a feel for what jobs in their specific area of interest are like in the real world.
Anthony Slenoy, II was part of the initial class of 33 students enrolled in the program and is now working as an assistant facility security officer with the Port of Houston Authority. The 24-year old Houston native has been on the job for a little over a year after graduating from the program in 2012.
“My original major was going to be criminal justice, but I got word about the maritime program from my father and after I looked into it on the Internet, it looked like it was a great opportunity for job growth,” Slenoy said. “To be totally honest, there was a huge learning curve to get over when I first began classes. I knew of the ship channel, but didn’t grasp how big a role it played in the economy, so it was all brand new to me at the time.”
After successfully completing the program’s initial introductory course, where students learn the basics of the shipping industry and port management and security, Slenoy went on to complete upper level courses and received an internship opportunity, which proved essential in propelling his career.
“The internship jump started my career and was the key to me getting employed by the Port of Houston,” Slenoy recalls. “I got to come out and work with the security team and get a grasp of what they do on a day to day basis, plus I got the chance to build relationships and get hands-on experience.”
In his current position Slenoy works with the port’s security team to keep the facility in compliance with federal security regulations, many of which were implemented in the aftermath of 911. The security department implements procedures to keep the facility in compliance with regulations set forth by the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency (under the Department of Homeland Security) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
“We did a lot of classroom study, obviously, but we also toured the port on the (M/V) Sam Houston (tour boat), which gave us a chance to see the vessels, the cargo operations and the various companies that do work along the ship channel. We also toured private facilities, including a Valero production facility and several terminals. It’s good to get the school side of it along with the real world. You can read all you want, but until you see it, it’s hard to grasp it,” Slenoy said.
Williams said the three full time instructors (in addition to one part time instructor) hired to teach the program’s courses have extensive maritime industry experience, including serving as ship’s captains and in various levels of port management. The program has also begun offering nine Coast Guard certification courses to workers who need additional training and certifications in order to advance in their career.
“Estimates show that trade is expected to triple by the year 2020, with 90 percent of that coming via ocean shipments. The expansion of the Panama Canal (scheduled to be completed in 2015) will help facilitate much of that growth in freight traffic, which means there’s a great need for skilled people,” Williams said.
While the Port of Houston Authority’s initial $2 million gift was essential in getting the program off the ground, Williams says the port remains engaged in the effort to produce graduates who can hit the ground running in their chosen field as soon as they graduate.
“The port is a very active partner in the program,” she said. “They serve on the Maritime Advisory Board and many of their people do guest lectures and take students on field trips, in addition to providing the all-important internships.”
For Slenoy, who makes around $50,000 annually in his position with the port, the program has put him right in the middle of an industry and career that he hopes will grow and flourish in the years to come.
“There’s lots of potential for growth in the security field,” Slenoy said. “The next promotion for me would be to a security manager’s position. I enjoy working on the security side because it’s fascinating and always changing. There are always rules and policies that we have to stay up to date with.”