David Flanagan of Thomaston works as a captain of large oceangoing vessels that perform a variety of tasks for the Military Sealift Command. Currently he’s towing decommissioned ships into lay-up. His last trip found him in Hawaii, around Pearl Harbor, but in his job — chief mate or captain — he can expect to be anywhere in the world.

Sound exciting? Flanagan hopes lots of Maine kids think so and would like similar careers. He wants Maine students to know the kinds of jobs that exist in the marine industry and to help them get trained to take those jobs, which he says are available now and will be even more accessible soon.

“These are jobs for seamen as opposed to merchant officers,” Flanagan explained. “The jobs we are talking about are blue collar jobs at white collar salaries.” And everyone wants a Mainer on board, he adds. “Around the waterfront you’ll hear a lot about the `Maine Mafia’. It’s a left-handed compliment to mariners from Maine.”

On and off for the past six years, he has been talking to people in the Midcoast area about starting a training program that could certify able-bodied seamen for merchant marine jobs. Jobs exist now, but Flanagan points out that the merchant fleet is staffed by baby boomers who are about to retire, so the need will be greater soon.

And, in the merchant marine service, it’s possible to work your way to the top. Flanagan did.

“They are not all Maine Maritime graduates. I came up through the ranks and started out with National Sea Products in Rockland,” Flanagan said. “I believe that there are high school kids around the Midcoast, that if this program is started, will eventually be captains and boatswains.”

Mariners from Maine have a reputation for hard work and good seamanship, he added. “In Midcoast Maine we have a large number of mariners sailing for both American and foreign companies.”

“A note of interest is a woman I had on the USNS Pautuxent who I next was with on the USNS Arctic. She came in at 45 years of age … a grandmother of two. Last year she asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her to become a third mate,” said Flanagan. “This is one of the last places in the U.S. where a man or woman can go to the top if they stay focused and pass the test. A degree is not the issue … sea time and competence are.

Statistics say the average age of current master’s license-holders in the fleet is 51 years, and for chief engineers, it’s 50. According to Alan Hinsey, executive director of the Knox-Waldo Regional Economic Council in Rockland, many of them will retire in the next seven years.

He’s one of the people working with Flanagan to bring this training idea to fruition and he believes there’s a lot of support and potential funding available. An informational meeting held in late January at the MidCoast School of Technology in Rockland entitled “Calling All Merchant Mariners,” attracted around 30 people, despite bad weather. Many of them were local merchant mariners and most are interesting in helping launch the program.

“The tricky part now, is whether to do this at the high school level or as postgraduate, adult ed,” said Hinsey. “We’re looking for a steering committee now.” Flanagan sold the program when he spoke to superintendents and other school officials more than a year ago, said Hinsey. “Now we’ll see if it has legs.”

Flanagan planned to visit California at the end of his recent trip to talk to former Navy personnel who have started two similar programs at Mira Vista high school in San Diego and Grant Union in Sacramento. Both are successful and highly praised by those who have hired their graduates, which includes Flanagan’s outfit.

The California programs run in high schools. Students receive high school credits for their three months of study, then spend three months at sea, doing an internship onboard a merchant vessel.

“We hope to start the high school training program in Rockland and use our many contacts in the many companies men and women work for around Maine to get these folks jobs,” said Flanagan.

“Do we buy the California curriculum, or go to Maine Maritime Academy, or the school boards?” wondered Hinsey. “That’s what we want the steering committee to decide. Where should the program be located?” The original proposal arose during discussions about the Many Flags campus proposed to unite in one place several different educational facilities including a University of Maine satellite campus and a new regional high school.

“We don’t adequately sell our programs here,” Hinsey said. “We have good medical services and welding programs now. The maritime program will sell itself — kids who get jobs as merchant seamen go away for six months, then come back to town with a new car. They’ve paid cash and they’ve just been in Hawaii. Their friends who are flipping burgers say `What?’ and off they go.”