In the spring of 2017, Derek Burnett was preparing to graduate from Petoskey High School and wasn’t entirely sure about his future plans. He had always enjoyed woodworking and working with his hands, and had success in the building trades program at the high school under long-time teacher Larry Liebler, now retired.

As graduation neared, Liebler approached Burnett with a suggestion: He wanted to recommend Derek for a job at Van Dam Custom Boats, located in Boyne City, as a boat building apprentice. 

“I was pretty intimidated,” Burnett recalled, noting the precision, high-end nature of the custom boats built by hand at Van Dam. “I came in for a tour, and that didn’t really alleviate my fears,” he added, with a laugh. “But everyone was really cordial, nice, and welcoming.”

Today, six years after that initial introduction, Burnett is now an integral part of the Van Dam crew. He recently sat down with husband and wife owners, Ben and Erika Van Dam (pictured with Burnett at right) to talk about the apprenticeship program offered at Van Dam and how he has chiseled a spot for himself into the successful company.

Ben Van Dam said he’d known Liebler for awhile, and knew him to only recommend reliable students of high-caliber who would do quality work. Burnett fit those qualities. He had taken Liebler’s building trades class for two years, and also a self-study woodworking course that depended on being self-motivated to do the work and meet requirements. 

During his introductory visit to the boat builder in late winter 2017, Burnett said he was particularly struck by the tools and equipment used, and the beauty of the wood products – whole sections of trees and the vast quantity of boards of varying sizes. The hand-crafted nature of the work appealed to him as well. 

A couple days after graduating that spring, he arrived for his first day on the job – which was spent vacuuming about an inch of dust out of a 44-foot custom sailboat, Italmas, that was under construction. Each day, Burnett shadowed other employees, listened, and learned the ins and outs of what it takes to build elaborate and beautiful custom boats. 

Eventually, tasks evolved as he gained more skills, under supervision and guidance from experienced staff, which is the nature of training newcomers at such a unique business. “He did a little bit of everything for awhile,” said Ben. 

Ben’s father, Steve, is the founder of Van Dam, and several decades ago he started an apprenticeship program that has had a few participants over the years. The regimented training program was a perfect fit for Burnett, who possessed the qualities they were looking for in a long-term employee. As the days and months passed, Burnett picked up more and more skills of this elite trade and in 2023, he graduated from the apprenticeship program with a celebration that included his family and the Van Dam team.

“Derek was checking off proficiencies and gaining more and more skills. He really showed his competency and desire to keep learning,” said Erika. “As soon as he finished the last step in the apprenticeship program, finishing his toolbox, we threw a big celebration.”

Burnett said the in-house apprenticeship program helped him build his confidence in working on such expensive, intricate projects. The boats crafted at Van Dam are not only beautiful, but functional – requiring staff to possess knowledge of design, construction, and operation.

“The more you do the work, the more it becomes something you just do with confidence rather than having to think about each step,” Burnett said, using examples of drawing joinery and using chisels, hand planes, and saws. “At a certain point, you are just doing it and not thinking about it. Now, my supervisor is able to show me what the end result should look like, and I can get there, instead of having to lay out every step in between.”

Burnett is currently working with the Van Dam crew on building out the interior of a 30-foot custom boat, Five Star, including cabinetry. He also led a small team building the structure that hides beneath the polished, paneled exterior. To get a sense for the demands of building a custom boat, the Van Dams estimate there are tens of thousands of individual pieces in each custom boat. 

“Every frame on Five Star has probably four or five dozen parts that are hand-assembled,” said Ben. “This project will involve about 23,000 build hours when it’s finished in spring 2024.”

When asked about his favorite part of working at Van Dam, Burnett said, “My favorite part is watching a boat leave, and then starting something new,” explaining that after so many hours and so much time spent on each vessel, staff members are happy to see the boats handed off to their excited owners. 

Looking back at the path to his position with Van Dam – now a Craftsman by title – Burnett has some advice for high school students trying to figure out their post-secondary plans. That advice includes actively taking part in career and technical education (CTE) classes, and taking them seriously.

“You don’t have to be book smart to be successful,” said Burnett, 23. “Don’t take CTE classes as a blow-off course. Some of my peers took CTE classes because they were perceived to be easier, less-structured or ‘free reign.’ That was frustrating to me, because they offer you so much potential, right there within your reach.”

While college education is often a more suggested route for driven, young people, Ben pointed out that, “Derek is a great example of CTE – he is bright, talented and certainly has as much potential as anyone I met at college,and we intend to help him reach his full potential. The success of our business depends on hiring young, smart, and talented people like Derek. I would tell other young adults, ‘Don’t shy away from careers in the trades.’”

When Derek was asked if he enjoys wood working outside of work hours, he humbly responded, “Well, I did build my own house.” Upon Ben’s urging, he shared more details. Using income from his full-time job at Van Dam, he was able to purchase 10 acres of land outside of Charlevoix, upon which he built his own home – the majority of which he completed during COVID shutdown in 2020 (the Van Dams paid their employees during the shutdown). He was able to secure a bank loan as a young person partly due to taking CTE courses in high school, which demonstrated his reliability, he noted. 

Burnett used many skills he learned in his high school building trades class, and from his day-to-day job, to construct his 2,200 square foot house. 

“I would really encourage everyone to take a course in the skilled trades,” he added. “It can open up so many opportunities and possibilities.”

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