Despite a weakening economy, demand for trained mariners remains firm

The demand for licensed mariners remains strong despite the global economic downturn, with the maritime academies and other training schools reporting increased enrollment and a high rate of job placement for graduates.

Maine Maritime Academy cadets Jeffrey Osborne and Keenan Powers perform maintenance in the engine room of the training vessel State of Maine during their school’s 2008 training cruise. Nearly all recent graduates of maritime academies have been able to find employment. (Courtesy Maine Maritime Academy)

According to the U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd), approximately 85 percent of graduates who earned merchant marine licenses from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point and the six state maritime academies in 2008 are now employed afloat in the industry or in the U.S. military. Total employment for 2008 licensed graduates, including those who have found shoreside jobs in fields like shipyard management and transportation logistics, exceeds 95 percent.

“This data indicates that the job market for merchant marine officers remains robust," said U.S. Maritime Administrator Sean Connaughton. “There is a growing worldwide demand for fully trained merchant marine officers and licensed mariners. Excellent training combined with ongoing global trade expansion will continue to make graduates of U.S. maritime colleges among the most qualified and employable mariners in the world."

Increasing enrollment at Kings Point and the six state maritime academies — in California, Maine, Michigan, Massachusetts, Texas and New York — reflects that demand, said Anne Dougherty, director of MarAd’s Office of Maritime Workforce Development. While jobs cuts have become the norm across the industrialized world, mariners haven’t felt the same impact.

The 170-foot 3,300-hp crew/supply boat Seacor Cheetah with Capt. Martin Songer on the cargo deck. The high-speed vessel, which went into service in 2008, is evidence of the growth of the offshore oil industry, which is expected to need thousands of skilled mariners in the next few years. (Brian Gauvin photo)

“Until we start seeing companies laying up ships because they have no cargo to carry, it’s not going to be a big issue," Dougherty said. “Historically there have been times with a plethora of jobs and times when jobs have been scarce. It’s a cycle. Even now we are seeing (maritime) industry expansion, in the Gulf of Mexico for example, that reflects employment opportunities."

Capt. Robert Glover, director of education at the Northeast Maritime Institute in Fairhaven, Mass., said in November that enrollment at the school has also remained strong despite the economy.

“We saw a little bit of a slowdown, especially last summer with the effect of gas prices, but it didn’t last," he said. “The only thing that’s happening now is that people are hesitating and waiting to get training until the last minute. But our December classes are already two-thirds full, and we expect enrollment to continue to grow."

The outlook is much the same at the Pacific Maritime Institute in Seattle, where enrollment has been increasing about 10 percent a year, said school director Gregg Trunnell.

“When you look at it internationally, (the economy) has had a huge effect," he said. “Domestically so far, knock on wood, we have seen nothing in the industry, especially with oil prices going down. As for the future impact, it’s really hard to say. We are budgeting for a decline, but so far we have seen nothing like that."

Glover said stringent requirement under the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) are continuing to have more of an effect on mariners than the latest economic concerns.

“We’re still seeing a definite trend toward a shortage of qualified people, predominantly in the tug and barge and oil industry," he said. “It’s mostly being driven by regulations. A lot of operators now want people with qualifications above and beyond what the Coast Guard would demand, often for insurance reasons."

The trend has fueled a need for training and experience that in past years was often obtained at sea in service with a company. With the coming of STCW, certification is now needed beforehand at a cost that many companies are reluctant to bear.

“Most of the demand for merchant mariners is in the tug and towing industry," Trunnell said. “In the towing sector before STCW, companies promoted 95 percent of their people from within, moving them up the ladder. They can no longer do that due to the expense of STCW. Now companies have one option, and that’s to go to the maritime academies."

Dougherty said companies that don’t operate on the water realize that as well, recruiting academy graduates for their training and expertise.

“When academies hold career days, there are always a large number of shoreside companies that come to tap graduates from our four-year programs," she said. “What we’re seeing is a lot of shore-based grads who are not going out to sea."

The result is that although training enrollments are growing, the number of licensed and qualified mariners is still falling short of what is needed, both domestically and globally. This is especially true for deep-sea operations, particularly the energy sector, where foreign-flagged vessels are the rule and American mariners traditionally have been in the minority.

Competition for workers may be changing that dynamic, Dougherty said.

“U.S. mariners have always been too expensive historically for international operators, but wages are rising internationally to help close that gap," she said. “It has never been an issue of quality, but always an issue of cost."

As crude petroleum becomes more difficult to obtain and companies move farther out to sea to drill for it, the need for larger ships and the personnel to handle them will put more pressure on the available pool of qualified workers.

“(U.S. merchant marine academies) graduate over 700 candidates annually who are deep-sea qualified for unlimited horsepower and unlimited tonnage," Dougherty said. “But in the Gulf of Mexico alone, they are going to need 4,000 qualified mariners in the next five years to serve on larger vessels."

Trunnell said that while adding to enrollment will help alleviate the problem, it won’t be enough. He said the real solution is apprenticeships, which allow mariners to gain experience in the service of a company.

“The key is that companies have to start building their own work forces," he said. “Apprenticeships combine STCW and sea time."

To that end, Pacific Maritime Institute — in collaboration with Dunlap Towing, Sause Brothers, Seacoast Towing and Western Towboat — launched an apprenticeship program in 2006 through the school’s workboat academy. It combines 25 weeks of classroom, laboratory and simulation instruction with one year of structured onboard training. As of January 2008, the program had 70 students enrolled.

“Regardless of the type of vessel being manned, the number of candidates needed to keep pace with the growing demand will have to more than double," Trunnell wrote in the Fall 2008 issue of the Coast Guard’s Proceedings magazine.

“The benefits of an apprentice system that breeds (company) loyalty cannot be discounted. In fact, this reinforces what we should already know — the best way to develop competent and loyal mariners is from within, using an apprentice system that is as old as time itself."

By Professional Mariner Staff