Community colleges expand maritime training as regulations stiffen


Community colleges have a well-earned reputation for filling the gaps, providing a path for high school graduates wary of a four-year academic commitment and for adults looking to transition to a new career. That reputation is increasingly extending to the maritime world, with “CCs” offering new courses, equipment and facilities to keep pace with an evolving industry.

At the heart of the expansion are ever-changing and stricter vessel regulations. Demand for U.S. Coast Guard certificates and two-year maritime degrees has remained steady or has spiked at many community colleges during the past decade, driven in large part by partnerships with vessel operators who need additional training for their employees. 

At San Jacinto College in Texas, the demand has given rise to the new Maritime Technology and Training Center. The 46,000-square-foot facility, located in La Porte, features three Kongsberg ship’s bridge simulators and others for radar, ARPA (automatic radar plotting aids), GMDSS (global marine distress and safety systems) and the handling of liquefied natural gas.

Sarah Janes, vice president of continuing and professional development at San Jacinto, said the $26 million expansion will allow the college to “double or even triple” its maritime enrollment in the next year. San Jacinto offers two-year degrees and non-credit certifications.

In the recently completed fall semester, there were 42 students enrolled in the program leading to an associate of applied science degree in maritime transportation, Janes said. On the non-credit side, she said the school had issued about 3,600 Coast Guard certificates in the past five years, “and that was in a very small building. Right now we have 18 classrooms, whereas before we only had four.”

Despite the downturn in offshore activity due to the collapse in oil prices, Janes said San Jacinto’s enrollment has grown as maritime companies comply with new Coast Guard regulations. The school provides tuition-free training to operators including Kirby Corp., G&H Towing, Buffalo Marine Service, Higman Marine, Harley Marine and others through Texas Workforce Commission grants.

“With new (Coast Guard) regulations, it means that in some cases rather than renewing your different licenses every five years, it may have to be done every three years,” Janes said. “We are also expanding our engineering courses because more and more companies are asking us for below-deck engineer (instruction). That’s why we’re beefing up that part of our program. We’ve actually gone to Kirby to teach the particular DDE (designated duty engineer) course that they want.”

Other areas in which Janes foresees strong growth are LNG training — “it’s really going to become important as we see more LNG handling coming into port” — and instruction in leadership and management.

“Having never taught that course before and never having to teach it, now we’re teaching one a month and we’re full to capacity,” she said. New provisions require mariners subject to Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) to take a leadership and management course or, for lower-level licenses, a leadership and teamwork course. 

Maritime students at Clatsop Community College enhance their training aboard MV Forerunner, a converted commercial fishing vessel.

Photo courtesy Clatsop Community College

Demand for leadership training is also strong at Clatsop Community College in Astoria, Ore., which enrolls 400 to 500 students a year in its maritime courses. The college serves experienced mariners in need of additional certifications and also students looking to start a career. Students can earn an associate of applied sciences degree in vessel operations through a two-year program that includes at-sea experience aboard the school’s M/V Forerunner.

“Right now the big demand is leadership and management, and ECDIS (electronic chart display and information systems),” said Bill Antilla, a maritime science instructor at Clatsop. “It’s always the latest requirement that the Coast Guard has implemented (that spurs demand), because people are trying to get into compliance as they change the rules of the game.”

Antilla said Clatsop has simulators to handle instruction in radar, ARPA, ECDIS and GMDSS, and it’s working hard to acquire a full-mission simulator. To help make that a reality, the school is lobbying for passage of the Maritime and Energy Workforce Technical Training Enhancement Act. The legislation, which is currently making its way through Congress, would include grant authority to expand community college facilities and faculty.

“It’s looking to build capacity for training and recruitment of new mariners through the community college system,” Antilla said. “That’s one of the ways we’re looking at improving our capabilities. There is a tremendous amount of support behind it, both from the industry and from congressional representatives across the country.”

The value of maritime programs at community colleges has been recognized at the state level as well. Texas approved a bond issue in 2008 to provide San Jacinto College with $18 million for its new maritime training center, while a 2007 bond issue in Louisiana included $7 million for a new training facility at Delgado Community College in New Orleans.

The 18,750-square-foot Delgado Maritime and Industrial Training Center, scheduled to open in 2016, will include three Transas full-mission bridge simulators and nine classrooms. More than 90 non-credit courses are offered at the school, which has been training maritime students for more than 30 years and is aiming to build on its reputation.

“We want to be a one-stop U.S. Coast Guard training center for the southeast Louisiana region,” said Rick Schwab, senior director of maritime, fire and industrial training at Delgado.

New classes being offered at the school include ECDIS, tank barge dangerous liquids, leadership and managerial skills, advanced firefighting revalidation, and a basic safety training refresher. Delgado is also expanding courses for STCW.

Schwab said most of the 8,000 to 10,000 students that Delgado trains each year are either starting a maritime career or going into the petrochemical industry, mostly in the Gulf and inland waterways. He said the collapse of the oil market has put more emphasis on being diversified when it comes to course offerings, including those customized to meet the specific needs of marine operators.

“We see a lot of things. A lot of new hires but also people who need to be cross-trained, either because they need training to transfer skills or need additional job duties for certification,” Schwab said. “Everyone wants to do more with less, so people need more training to keep up.”

Spencer Paul, a student at Clatsop Community College in Astoria, Ore., gets familiar with ECDIS equipment at the school.

Photo courtesy Clatsop Community College

The call for customized training has helped keep enrollment steady at Fletcher Technical Community College in Houma, La., with increased demand from inland customers offsetting losses in the offshore sector, according to maritime instructor Jack Porche. The school offers 70 marine and safety courses and awards an average of 2,500 certificates a year.

“Offshore has just cratered, but inland has picked up the slack,” Porche said. “It’s company-sponsored. The Coast Guard is not requiring STCW and that kind of stuff for the inland mariners, so once they get their license they don’t get any more official training. But the boat companies are doing that on their own. They’re coming to us and saying, ‘We’d like to offer this’ — whatever they feel their weaknesses are.”

Porche cited customized training for Settoon Towing’s wheelhouse personnel that focused on navigating Louisiana’s difficult Berwick Bay waterway system (Professional Mariner, April 2013). Fletcher has also developed programs for Ingram Barge and LeBeouf Bros. Towing.

“It can be anything from one-day introductory training for new hires coming on to some more advanced training for people they already have on board,” he said.

Todd Boudreaux, director of the Marine & Petroleum Safety Training Center at Fletcher, said the Coast Guard’s Subchapter M has played a role in the growing demand from inland customers.

“Some of (the training) is above and beyond what they have to do, but I think a lot of it is anticipation of the final Subchapter M regulations,” he said. “(Operators) have implemented some of it, but they know more is coming down the line, so I think they are trying to get ahead of the game a little bit.”

To help its students get what they need, Fletcher has a Transas bridge simulator for inland towboat training and a Kongsberg bridge simulator for ships. 

The school also has a SEFtec helicopter simulator and a dynamic positioning lab, but that equipment hasn’t gotten much use since the oil market collapsed.

“Before offshore slowed down, we were getting calls all the time,” Boudreaux said. “But whenever those guys pick up, we’ll be ready as well.”

Whether it’s Subchapter M compliance or providing the latest instruction to keep personnel safe offshore, Schwab said it’s important for community colleges to keep growing with the industry — and to be there in good times or bad. It is especially important to attract young recruits to fill the shoes of experienced mariners as the work force ages.

“A lot of our students haven’t had college experience; this is their first college experience,” he said. “It’s important that they obtain something they thought they couldn’t obtain. They’re getting certifications and running vessels and running offshore rigs. They are the new managers and supervisors. They are the wave of the future.”

By Professional Mariner Staff