Maritime industry labor challenges persist despite cooling economy

Foss Maritime’s Garth Foss prepares to work a containership in Elliott Bay.
Crescent Towing’s Ned Ferry passes a grain terminal on the Lower Mississippi River.
Crescent Towing’s Ned Ferry passes a grain terminal on the Lower Mississippi River.

Recruiting and retaining employees remains a challenge within the maritime industry, although insiders say there are many opportunities for advancement for those who pursue a career on the water. 

Steve Haft, vice president of human resources for Saltchuk Marine Shared Services in Seattle, Wash., said the company finds employees from many places. This includes U.S. maritime academy graduates as well as job candidates without a traditional maritime resume.

“We think it doesn’t matter what your background has been, as long as you have a pretty strong work ethic and are able to physically and mentally deal with the elements that come with being outdoors, being on the water and then being away from friends and family for an extended period of time,” Haft said.

Foss Maritime’s Garth Foss prepares to work a containership in Elliott Bay.
Foss Maritime’s Garth Foss prepares to work a containership in Elliott Bay.

Saltchuk is global marine services company whose subsidiaries include the towing company Foss Maritime and the ocean carrier TOTE Maritime, among others. The company employs about 800 mariners, and as of mid-January it had 275 open positions, although not all work on the water. 

Attrition rates can be high for mariners regardless of how much they’re prepared for the industry’s unique challenges. 

“Not unlike other industries I’ve worked in, you can do your darndest to give them a picture of misery almost, whether that be working conditions or scheduling, etc. — but until you live it, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I could do that’ and then you get sick on the boat the first time you are out there,” Haft said.

Entry-level employees at Saltchuk earn between $60,000 and $80,000 a year. People who have technical skills, such as engineers, make between $80,000 and $100,000. Captains can earn over six figures. 

Mark Higgins is the ferry services manager at Maine State Ferry Service, part of the state’s Department of Transportation. It provides passenger and vehicle ferry services to islands in Maine’s mid-coast region.  

Higgins said it has been extremely difficult to find mariners despite raising wages. Engineers can be particularly challenging to hire and keep, given the higher pay they can find elsewhere in the maritime industry. 

“We have raised the wages of our ABs and engineers by 15 percent and that still isn’t helping. We have two AB positions that have been advertised for months and we have not even received a new application in over six weeks,” Higgins said via email.

Higgins said the ferry service just went through a round of stipends that increased pay for all crew positions. It is also paying retention bonuses every six months that equate to a $2 an hour raise, he said.

“I think the combination of an aging workforce and fewer people going into the maritime industry has created the perfect storm that people have been predicting for a decade,” Higgins said.

To help, the ferry service has developed a deck hand to AB program so entry-level employees can receive training they need to advance. It is also working with Maine Maritime Academy on a program to train more workers to become captains.

Other ferry operators are struggling to find and keep their workers. In April 2022, Washington State Ferries (WSF) announced a partnership with Seattle Maritime Academy to address a worker shortage that hindered ferry service at times during the pandemic. 

Washington State Ferries, the nation’s largest ferry system, has partnered with Seattle Maritime Academy to train new workers.
Washington State Ferries, the nation’s largest ferry system, has partnered with Seattle Maritime Academy to train new workers.

“Engine room employees are a part of ferry operations that a lot of people don’t know exist, yet they’re absolutely vital to ensure the largest ferry system in North America can safely serve the people of Washington,” WSF chief of staff Nicole McIntosh said in a statement. “The jobs can pay more than $60 per hour, and once on board there is a clear career path.” 

Seattle Maritime Academy Associate Dean Dale Bateman hopes the partnership will reach people who haven’t previously considered a maritime career. “There’s huge demand for merchant mariners, not just at Washington State Ferries, but across the entire industry,” he said. “We offer a fast-track program to train the next generation of mariners. Students in the marine engineering technology unit can graduate and be on the water in as little as a year.”

Businesses in almost every sector of the American economy are competing for employees. Jerome Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve of the United States, said in December that the labor market remains extremely tight with unemployment near a 50-year low.

“Although job vacancies have moved beyond their highs and the pace of job gains has slowed from earlier in 2022, the labor market continues to be out of balance, with demand substantially exceeding the supply of available workers,” he said.

There are about 400,000 maritime workers across the nation who find employment in shipyards, marine terminals, fishing, aquaculture, seafood processing, commercial diving and maritime transportation, according to federal data. These maritime workers, broadly speaking, have a fatality rate 4.7 times higher than that of all U.S. workers.

Despite the risks and the challenges of maritime work, many people dream of growing up and working on boats. Rick Smith is a traditional “hawsepiper” who entered the industry at the bottom and worked his way up. The Bangor, Maine, native is now a captain for Transocean working on the drill ship Deepwater Titan.

He has some advice for people who know for sure they want to dedicate their career to a life on the water: Get a college degree. “I got to where I need to be. I got to the top of the game, but I could have done it 10 years earlier if I went to school,” Smith said. 

Training centers around the U.S. can help mariners begin their careers or advance to a higher position. Maritime Institute, for instance, offers Mariner Boot Camp courses at its centers in San Diego and Norfolk, Va., that give graduates skills and certifications needed to work in the maritime industry. 

And the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS) offers a 28-month maritime apprentice program in Seattle that combines classroom learning and 360 days of work at sea. Graduates leave with the training and sea time needed to acquire a mate’s license. 

“We offer the ability of a person to come in, absolutely new to the industry without having any previous experience, and we can provide the training they would need in order to actually obtain their Coast Guard license,” said Emily Hopkins, the business operations manager at MITAGS.

Timothy Achorn is the director of the Center for Professional Mariner Development (CPMD) at Maine Maritime Academy, located in Bucksport, Maine. CPMD offers 36 courses that cost between $100 and $2,500 depending on the subject. 

“We’re working with already established mariners and those desiring to break into the maritime world. The courses we provide range from advanced ship handling and fast rescue boat on the deck side, to leadership, management and teamworking skills, to three different courses for vessel security,” Achorn said. 

“A lot of the training centers are doing what we are doing, it’s just that we are an academy attachment whereas many of the other training centers are either stand-alone or they’re attached to the unions out there in the maritime fields,” he continued. “We like to pride ourselves on accommodating the
mariner’s schedule for training.”

Achorn, who is a Maine Maritime Academy alum who graduated in 1979, said people who graduate from an academy or move their way up through the hawsepipe can work anywhere in the world.

“The world,” Achorn said, “is your oyster,