Neel Verma pointed an extinguisher at a torrent of flames dancing beneath the Crescent City Connection and pulled a lever, releasing a cloud of carbon dioxide over a simulated electrical fire.
The 16-year-old from the Haynes Academy for Advanced Studies in Metairie is no fire-fighter. But at the Port of New Orleans on Tuesday, he got a hands-on feel for what a job on an ocean-going vessel might look like — fires and all.
Around 150 public school students from Jefferson Parish converged on the banks of the Mississippi River to explore career opportunities in the maritime industry.
Rotating between stations, the students from 16 schools across the parish got firsthand demonstrations from those who work on the Mighty Mississippi.
“Man overboard! Man overboard!” shouted Courtney Tierney, with Crescent Towing, showing one group of students how to throw a life ring.
Nearby, the U.S. Corps of Engineers discussed their efforts to build an underwater levee to block saltwater from intruding upstream.
At another station, Lloyd Trosclair, with Turn Services, demonstrated how to connect two barges together with a ratchet and wires. He started as a deckhand nine years ago but has since been promoted to an office job.
“In this industry you’re not limited to busting your butt all day in the heat and the cold and all of that,” Trosclair told the students. “There’s areas for improvement.”
Tuesday’s program was developed by RiverWorks Discovery, a nationwide nonprofit that promotes careers and culture along America’s rivers.
Laura Mellon, chief of staff at the Port of New Orleans, noted that much of the region’s economy revolves around the port. But because that work takes place out of sight from the public, in secure facilities, it can be hard to promote as a career.
Dawn Lopez, vice president at Associated Terminals, added, “Maritime is a sexy name, but nobody really knows what it means.”
The event fits into a larger effort to incorporate maritime workforce development in Jefferson Parish Schools, said LaDinah Carter, executive director of school support.
That includes minor tweaks, like teaching the 30-hour OSHA course, which is required for most port work, instead of the 10-hour course. And introducing a forklift certification program.
Beginning next August, Jefferson Parish Schools also plans to offer a heavy equipment operator program, Carter said.
“We have too many jobs that are open now, and our kids are hungry,” said Jefferson Parish Schools Superintendent James Gray.
The event also included a visit to Vue Orleans, though Gray said, “we don’t look at this as just a field trip.”
“This is an opportunity for our kids to really engage with the opportunities that are here at Port of New Orleans and then try to figure out if it fits with their long-term goals,” he said.
Another batch of students from Orleans Parish schools will participate in the program Wednesday.