• Friday, February 15, 2019

Providing accessible and diverse learning opportunities for mariners

By BCShippingNews 10 October 2018
Buki Hough, WMI’s Campus Director, stands next to WMI’s Class B, fully integrated simulator which includes a full mission bridge.
By Amanda Schuldt

Western Marine Institute (WMI) takes great pride in connecting both young and experienced mariners to extensive course diversity within a dynamic learning environment, regardless of location. As Canada’s largest private marine training college, WMI is responsive to the needs of industry through regular consultation and rigorous review from Transport Canada and continues to successfully remove location as a barrier to marine education by taking the classroom wherever it is needed.


WMI was established in 1989 by Captain Bob Kitching as a consultant marine education organization. In 2000, Maritime Education Associates (MEA) was formed by Captain Kitching and Captain Brian Silvester with the goal of filling a gap of offering marine training in remote BC communities. In 2008, the decision was made to continue with remote location training and couple that with a campus, based in Ladysmith, that would also have training equipment. In 2015, Fraser Education Inc. purchased the shares of MEA and took over the operation of WMI. There was steady growth in the Bridge Watch Rating program, Marine Emergency Duties courses, and Fishing Master 3 and 4 Certificate courses.

Photo above: Buki Hough, WMI’s Campus Director, stands next to WMI’s Class B, fully integrated simulator which includes a full mission bridge.

Buki Hough joined WMI in 2014 as an Admissions Advisor and since then there has been an average 35 per cent increase each year in enrollment. Harnessing her admissions recruitment background and supported by a dedicate administrative and instructional team, Hough is passionate about helping students “become who they are meant to be.”


WMI is a year-round school with courses for the upcoming academic year varying from a one-day course covering emergency duties on small domestic vessels to a nine-month long Watchkeeping Mates certificate. There are Fishing Master 3 and 4 Certificate courses as well as Mates and Master courses. Classes run each day from 8:30am to 5pm.

Currently, the most popular courses taught at WMI include those related to STCW MEDs (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Marine Emergency Duties) which teach practical, hands-on safety skills and firefighting, personal survival and passenger safety onboard vessels. STCW courses can be used on international foreign-going vessels as well as domestic ones. Other popular courses include Bridge Watch Rating program and the 150 and 500 gross tonnage Mates and Master courses and MED Refreshers.

In addition, finishing touches are being made to WMI’s simulators and simulated electronic navigation courses that will be taught this fall.

The popularity of these courses is a clear indication that marine industry careers are viable, as WMI attracts young people new to the industry, with very little sea time. It is also indicative that large marine companies (BC Ferries, Canadian Coast Guard) are increasing their recruitment efforts. Hough further points out that there is increased enrollment in block credit courses, so much so that over the past two years they have offered two strings of Meteorology, Chartwork and Pilotage. “It is a combination of awareness of WMI and what we offer and also where the industry is right now,” she said. “Because of the demand, companies are realizing that they need to release their crew to attend classes if they want to meet their obligations in the near future.”

With greater urgency to get more people to that next level, given the attrition rates in the industry due to retirements, Hough describes the private college as being responsive to the needs of industry with a very “nimble” way of approaching course studies. “Schedules are not set in stone for any given year,” she said. “Where there is an interest in a particular course — either from a company or group of students — it is added to meet that need. This responsiveness sets us apart from other institutions.”


The student body at WMI ranges from 18-year-old recent high school graduates who are just embarking on their marine careers and taking MEDs and/or the Bridge Watch Rating program, to mariners with decades of experience taking courses to advance their career or refreshers to maintain their current level certification. The age range of students creates a dynamic class environment as students meet people from other companies, allowing for a pooling of knowledge and varied experience in the classroom. Hough describes the “organic mentoring that happens outside of the classroom” and “the conversations that happen in the lounge area.” On-campus connections allow students to learn from each other, connect and transition into new areas of the industry. “Our diversity has created a vibrant environment due to variations in age and ethnicity. We are especially proud of our reputation with the Indigenous marine community.” In any given year, we have instructors teaching in various Indigenous coastal communities, ensuring an ongoing connection.


Instructors at WMI are audited regularly by Transport Canada to ensure they are meeting both TC and IMO standards. The majority are retired mariners with a passion for sharing their experiences and knowledge. “They take the courses beyond the theoretical level to enhance the experience for students and use practical exercises and their knowledge of industry to make the material come alive for students,” Hough said, pointing out that this adds to the learning experience, preparing students for industry. “For example, Bridge Watch students are taken on a number of field trips to Nanaimo Port Authority, BC Ferries, Canadian Coast Guard and Seaspan in order to gain a clear idea of what being a deckhand looks like at a practical level.”

Location, location, location

Since WMI started in 1989, a strong focus has always been placed on knowing where there is an increased demand for courses and training, and meeting those demands as much as possible. This principle also applies to where courses are taught. “Location should never be a barrier to marine training,” Hough emphasized. “At WMI, we have never limited ourselves by excluding students who can’t attend classes on campus. As such, our courses are offered in communities all over Canada.”

With location removed as a barrier, WMI takes the classroom to wherever it is needed and has run courses in places such as Alert Bay, Iqaluit, Hazelton, and Inuvik. Inuvik proved to be a major geographical feat as the instructor negotiated an ice bridge on the way in, and then waited for the ice to break in order to take the ferry out again! Hough stressed that “marine safety is so important to what we do … just because someone lives in a remote location, that shouldn’t be a barrier to safe vessel operations.” She observed that mariners are often more engaged and more likely to be successful with their studies when learning in their own communities. “They are close to the vessel in operation and able to immediately relate what they are learning directly to their own marine environment. Remote marine training will always be an integral part of what WMI does.”

The Ladysmith campus is able to offer a limited number of students self-contained accommodation in the form of cabins and trailer hook ups. There is a communal room, kitchen and free wifi on campus. Many students commute from Victoria, Parksville, Qualicum, while others rent local accommodation. A new North Surrey campus will open in 2019 to offer courses in the Lower Mainland.

What else sets WMI apart? 

Hough is proud of the environment the WMI team have created that enables mariners to “complete their studies with minimal disruption to their careers.” Students are keen to complete their studies in a short period of time so they can reduce lost wages, accumulate sea time and get started on the next stages of their career. “WMI helps students achieve academic success without compromising academic excellence by offering an accelerated course schedule with courses running back to back as well as having a longer day in class,” she said. “For example, the 150-tonne Master program is comprised of 11 courses running concurrently from September to March. Students know when the course will end and find it a faster way to study.”

Meeting industry standards

Within the marine training landscape, WMI is regulated by Transport Canada who translates IMO requirements for the Canadian environment into syllabi which is then used as the basis to create courses at WMI. All marine courses taught at WMI are approved by Transport Canada to ensure the content meets Canadian and IMO standards. During the course creation process, WMI submits content to TC for review and approval. The first time a course is run, a TC Auditor is present to offer suggestions and improvements. Once changes have been implemented, full approval is given for the course to run. TC’s role in course development translates into a key advantage for students as they are permitted to write a Transport Canada-approved exam right on campus.

Industry influence

Once a year, a Program Advisory Council comprised of industry members (ferry operators, union reps, and fishing and tug boat industry representatives) meets to discuss industry developments and help WMI make decisions with course direction and offerings. Equally, WMI will make suggestions and explore ideas with council members. Critical conversations are also held each year at the Canadian Marine Advisory Council forum to discuss education and curriculum for the industry.

New technologies

When it comes to new technology in course content, Hough explained that WMI is taking a two-pronged approach. “Technology is moving very quickly and the digital era is taking over old analogue ways,” she said, “but class curriculum, especially in higher level courses, still covers old analogue methodology, which is then enhanced by digital knowledge.” For example, Chartwork and Pilotage are paper-based and charting implements are still used but students are also taught how to use the technology found on board vessels. “They gain a solid foundation in basic marine skills on the analogue side so that when technology fails, they’ll be able to revert back to a basic foundation of skills taught in the classroom.”


When asked about challenges, Hough noted that securing qualified and dedicated instructors is usually top of mind but that WMI is fortunate to have a core group of knowledgeable instructors who foster a culture of continued improvement and who are passionate about teaching the next generation.

Another challenge, given the diversity of students, is the varying degrees of educational background. While some left school at 16, others are high school graduates and still others might have some post-graduate or trades training. “A lack of formal education can cause learning difficulties for some students,” Hough said. “To help resolve this issue, in one past Bridge Watch program we introduced an Essential Skills course that helped the students boost their Math and English skills, as well as a Daily Activities component to help students focus and succeed. We also issue a pre-reading primer for our Chartwork and Pilotage students a few months before course commencement to help students connect practical to theoretical work.”

For those courses — such as Ship Construction and Stability — that require high-level math, tutors are available for extra help and support.

“Another challenge students often find is acquiring enough qualifying sea time to enable them to move up in their career,” said Hough, providing an anecdote from an industry colleague who estimated it is quicker to become a doctor (seven years) than it does to go from being a deckhand to a captain (15-20 years). Hough sees this as a deterrent for ambitious individuals who want to advance their career.


Many industry round-table discussions are centred on the problem of attracting young people, Indigenous people and women into the marine industry. Hough believes that ongoing gender disparity in the industry shouldn’t be ignored, especially with an aging baby boomer population leaving the workforce. She pointed out that presently, only 10 per cent of sea-going mariners are female. “Canadian society is changing drastically and our industry needs to change along with it if we are going to sustain our workforce,” Hough said, adding that the Institute is proud to have added two female Master Mariner instructors recently, who are great examples of what women can achieve in the marine industry.

When asked about what the industry could do to increase participation, Hough felt greater efforts were required to recruit students as early as Grades 9 through 11. “The industry needs to start thinking outside the box and encourage young people to gain work experience the way many other trades have done. If we don’t get to them early and show them how viable, sustainable and fulfilling a marine career can be, then we’ve lost them for life.”

Another trend Hough highlighted is the increase in technological advancement. From autonomous vessels, LNG and alternate fuels to the use of “big data” software to manage vessels and equipment, technology is moving faster than education can keep up. WMI is striving to meet that need with the installation of a Class B simulator, which includes a full mission bridge and four integrated classroom bridges to teach the Simulated Electronic Navigation course at the operational and management level. Hough indicated that further enhancements would be made to build on the existing simulator to meet training needs, becoming a simulator centre for both Canadian and International marine industries.

The WMI advantage

A major advantage for WMI was captured by Hough’s closing comments: “We love what we do and I think that’s reflective in the growth we’ve experienced,” she said. “Students come on campus and see that we have a group of people who not only care about their training but their individual needs and character.” Clearly, this is one of the many keys to WMI’s success as a first-class training institute.