Despite a difficult economy, some marine sectors still hiring

Students in a QMED class (qualified member of the engine department) at Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy examine a two-stage centrifugal pump. They are, left to right, Bruce Bannick, an engineer on a research vessel; Bryan Baker, a retired Navy man who is retraining; and Beth Bland, an engineer on a ferry. (Courtesy Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy)

Job growth in the maritime industry historically has been cyclical, tied to the ebb and flow of the economy. An expanding economy typically creates jobs as operators hire to meet a growing demand for goods, services and routes. When the tide falls, employment — and the training of new mariners — tends to suffer.

While that premise has held true for the most part during the current global recession, two sectors of the industry — the domestic tug and barge market and offshore operations — have continued to look to U.S. maritime schools and training academies for qualified seafarers.

Maritime education officials trace much of the demand to factors beyond the recession, including Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) requirements, companies expanding internationally and the need to replace experienced mariners as they retire. Those factors have enabled many companies to avoid layoffs or continue hiring, though at a slower rate.

“Even though the economic downturn may have adversely affected smaller companies, the larger companies with diverse market share have continued (to hire) apace,” said Capt. Martin Legg, director of education at Northeast Maritime Institute (NMI) in Fairhaven, Mass. “They will always require trained seamen to replace those lost to attrition and to meet the more stringent levels of training required of seamen both domestically and worldwide.”

Legg said that the increased tonnage of vessels, combined with pressure from insurers on operators to have licensed personnel and STCW-trained crews, is responsible for the greatest demand.

“More companies venturing internationally means that the crews of the vessels need to meet international STCW standards, not just domestic U.S. standards,” he said. “STCW-qualified licensed deck officers and engineers are therefore very much in demand. We are seeing demand for 500- or 1,600-ton licensing, even from tugboat companies that traditionally did not require the higher-limited licenses. Insurers pressure fleet operators for increasingly more extensively trained crewmen and captains. On a whole, in order to remain internationally competitive, the higher the license, the better.”

George Trowbridge, president of Quality Maritime Training of St. Petersburg, Fla., said towing companies are continually looking for qualified masters and mates, but lately have been focusing on those with an ocean route — one that is more than 200 miles from shore — on their license.

“We are seeing a consistent demand in many parts of the limited-tonnage vessel industry for qualified and experienced masters and mates of 500 or 1,600 gross tons,” he said. “Additionally, we are experiencing a distinct rise in those pursuing the third-mate unlimited tonnage license. For unlicensed positions, there seems to be an increase in demand for those who have both an able seaman and tankerman-PIC (barge) endorsement on their merchant mariner credentials, with STCW compliance.”

Adding to the need for experienced personnel in the tug and towing industry is attrition among the work force, said Capt. Guy Sorensen, president of the Chesapeake Marine Training Institute in Hayes, Va.

“Many older mariners have made the choice not to remain in the industry, and older mariners tend to be those currently serving in the wheelhouse,” he said. “The type of personnel we find that are most in demand are the tug operators — masters and mates — who have the master of towing vessel endorsement and good experience in safe towing practices.”

Barbara Lester, vice president of business development and marketing at the Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy in Virginia Beach, Va., said the school has seen an increase in requests to train engineers for offshore drilling, complemented by the need for mates, seamen and dynamic-positioning operators for offshore vessels in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Engineers are always in demand,” she said. “Not many engineering schools have offered hands-on engine room training, as well as an opportunity to understand the theory that supports it.”

Technological advances in vessel operating systems have increased that demand, said Kelly Curtin, manager of the Nautical Science Division at the Global Maritime and Transportation School (GMATS) in Kings Point, N.Y.

“With vessels being built with more sophisticated engine rooms comes the need for more qualified personnel,” he said. “We have seen an increase in our diesel electrical and PLC (programmable logic controller) courses.”

To help get more licensed officers on the water, Curtin said GMATS has developed an Engineering Crew Advancement Program (ECAP) similar to the deck CAP curriculum at the school. The goal is to provide entry-level seafarers with the necessary training to become qualified members of the engine department, and then licensed engineering officers.

“The CAP and ECAP programs were primarily designed for the workboat industry to assist in advancing their deck hands and engineers into licensed officers,” Curtin said. “An additional benefit of the CAP program is that all of the coursework qualifies for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree with AMU (American Military University).”

Despite the economic downturn, many schools report rising enrollments as mariners realize the need for more training to keep pace with technology and to better position themselves for the future.

“We continue to add course content and develop curricula to suit the marine education environment,” said Legg at NMI. “For example, in 2010 we will begin to offer a 500/1,600 prep course to help seafarers upgrade their licenses. … There is consistent demand for STCW basic safety training, both for students looking to enter the industry and those already in it. Increased demand is very noticeable in the more technical courses such as BRM (bridge resource management), ARPA (automatic radar plotting aid) and radar that are required for STCW-level licensing.”

Enrollment for fall and winter is up from last year at the Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy, which has made strong investments in simulation technology, Lester said.

“We predict that the numbers will continue to rise as baby boomers leave spots for entry-level mariners who choose to climb the hawsepipe,” she said. “We have the pleasure of sharing the news that this industry can provide good careers for qualified, hard-working mariners. This message is welcomed by transitioning military personnel and others who see good pay and the possibility to skipper their own vessels.”

In a negative development for mariners, Trowbridge said Quality Maritime Training has seen “a marked decline” in the past year of employer-paid and employer-supported training. In response, many mariners are covering tuition costs themselves.

“Most mariners who have jobs are not willing to ask their employers for off-time to attend training,” he said. “Instead, they attempt to complete training that fits in their off-time rotation. We have gotten more creative in our course scheduling, trying to make sure we have as many course offerings as possible in any given month that hopefully will fit with the mariner’s off-work time.”

To help seafarers pay for training at NMI, the school created the Mariners Education and Training Cooperative (MET Co-op). The subscription-based program offers half-price tuition and other benefits, such as discounts at local hotels for mariners who have to travel long distances to the school.

“At NMI our motto is ‘Honor the Mariner,’ and as it became apparent to us that many seafarers were being impacted by the economy, we instituted MET Co-op,” Legg said. “The implementation has had a positive impact and encourages our clients to return to us for any further licensing and training they may require as they advance in their careers.”

As for employment demand beyond the tug and offshore sectors, Trowbridge and many of his education colleagues were optimistic that it will soon begin to show some growth.

“We have always had the market continuum of peak and trough cycles, usually about 18 to 36 months in duration,” he said. “Sometimes the peaks or troughs get stretched or compressed, but nonetheless historically the engine that drives the market cycles has never stopped.” •

By Professional Mariner Staff