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Floating University Offers Recession-Proof Jobs

LOS ANGELES - Many new college graduates are having a hard time finding work because of the weak economy. But that's not a problem for students from The California Maritime Academy, the only school of its kind on the U.S. west coast. One of the cities the school's floating classroom visited during a two-month international training cruise.

Deep in the heart of the ship named Golden Bear, it is hot and the sound of engines, loud. This is where Vasile Tudoran spends much of his time, doing what he loves.

"I knew I wanted to fix stuff since I was a little kid," said Tudoran.

Tudoran is a mechanical engineering student at The California Maritime Academy. Even though students attend classes on the university campus in northern California, they are required to get hands-on experience on the Golden Bear training vessel. During this two-month trip, 288 cadets travel more than 15,000 kilometers south to the Panama Canal, visiting countries in Central America and the Caribbean along the way.

"When we get out of school you are basically guaranteed a job," noted Tudoran. "There are not enough bodies for the positions that are needed to be filled."

Robert Jackson, one of Tudoran's teachers echoes that.

"I would say the majority of our students have between one to two job offers before they graduate," said Jackson. "Most of those job offers are between $60,000 and $120,000 [a year]. Our students have such a broad knowledge they can go anywhere."

Jackson says in addition to working on ships, California Maritime Academy engineering graduates also get jobs with power plants and satellite companies. Faculty member Bill Schmid says the outlook for students studying marine transportation is not as bright as it was before the economic downturn, but it is recovering.

"I think probably the vast majority of our graduates are employed in the industry, if they want to be, now," said Schmid.

Even with a 94 percent job-placement rate, only about 900 students are currently enrolled in the Academy. Vasile Tudoran and his classmate, Andrew Di Tucci, understand why.

"It is not for everybody, that is why there are so few of us there," said Tudoran. "There is always a reason."

"The school, it is not like your normal college experience would be," said di Tucci. "We are a paramilitary school. We have uniforms. We have formations. Just disciplining yourself to show up and keep grooming standards and be where you need to be, sit down, buckle your belt and study."

Not only do the students have to be disciplined because of their responsibilities on the ship, instructor Bill Schmid says the coursework is also rigorous.

"Ship's officers are kind of like your surgeons or your airplane pilot," Schmid explained. "You do not want them to be right only 70 percent of the time. We pretty much have to be right all the time. That is a hard thing to teach young people. There is zero tolerance for mistakes."

Di Tucci, who is majoring in marine transportation, says their two months on Golden Bear helps reinforce that lesson.

"Growing up, I have always been told it takes a special person to want to go to sea for a living," Di Tucci added. "I think that is what the goal of these cruises are, is to see if you are really fit to be out at sea for months on end."

But there are rewards to life at sea.

"My favorite thing about it is waking up every morning and seeing nothing but the ocean on all sides of you. I get a thrill out of that," Di Tucci explained.

Feeling that thrill and eventually getting paid for it is what motivates these students to work hard and graduate.