In a tough job market, training is more important than ever

The industy is struggling and jobs are tough to find. But there are sectors where qualified mariners are still in demand, despite the poor economy.

One area of continuing need is for engineers. "Marine engineers — that is the big shortage,” said Alison McClenaghan, corporate recruiter for McAllister Towing. "The shipping companies and the tanker companies, small and large vessels — are probably all looking for engineers."

Carly Remm, port engineer, working in the engine room aboard one of Crowley Maritime's oceangoing tugboats. Licensed engineers are in particular demand because of new U.S. Coast Guard rules expected to come into force. (Photo courtesy Crowley Maritime)

The reason for this need is the new towing vessel inspection regulations, due to be published in the Federal Register in July. According to McClenaghan, the new rules mean that towing companies will have to hire licensed engineers. "And we want to look for engineers who have worked on tugboats and smaller vessels — that narrows it down," McClenaghan said.

In her experience, engineers on deep-sea vessels are less likely to stay in the towing and tugboat industry. McAllister also has a hard time filling positions for port engineers, she said.

Another major factor driving the demand for marine engineers is the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) 2010 Manila Amendments, according to Margaret Reasoner, director of marine personnel for Crowley Maritime. One major change is the addition of an able seafarer engine rating (separate from the rating as part of an engineering watch), which will require testing and training. In addition, a new electro technical officer (ETO) and an electro technical rating (ETR) will be added. Engine room resource management, teamwork and leadership training will be mandatory at both the operational and management levels. The new regulations go into effect Jan. 1, 2012.

"People will need a higher licensing level," said Reasoner. "Then you throw in a lot of technical changes in the equipment on board, so that the electrician and the electronics skill set is a definite need." In addition, as motivated unlicensed engineers seek training to become licensed engineers, the need for unlicensed engineers will also grow.

During boom times, there was a tremendous demand for mates and captains in the tugboat and towing industry. "Right now, even though we're not incredibly busy right now, we always look for qualified people to have in our database," said McClenaghan. McAllister has a standing posting on its website for tug captains and mates, for that reason and for emergencies, she said.

There are openings for jobs requiring more specialized endorsements, such as a towing endorsement, be it harbor tugs, pushboats or ATBs, said Stephen Polk, director of marine education for the Seamen's Church Institute's Center for Maritime Education.

For example, traditionally, someone with an unlimited license could serve as captain on any vessel, but now the U.S. Coast Guard has recognized that as mariners move from one market segment to another, they need more time on board training in these new situations before taking over as captain. In recognition of that fact, the Coast Guard established the Towing Officers' Assessment Record (TOAR) so that mariners could receive the proper training and demonstrate their proficiencies with watchstanding, maneuvering, and piloting.

For third mates to become more marketable, they should seek training in areas such as electronic chart display and navigation systems (ECDIS, AIS, ARPA radars), z-drive or azipod classes, CEMS (Crew Endurance Management System), or dynamic positioning (DP). Mariners should take classes in areas that are not required by the Coast Guard for professional development purposes.

"It allows you to retool your skills and be more marketable for companies. You will already have trained yourself in utilizing the industry's best practices, while harnessing the technology now being used," Polk said.

Because of the BP oil spill and the resulting moratorium on new drilling licenses, the offshore marine services industry is in terrible shape. But mariners can still obtain skills to prepare for the eventual recovery. Reasoner said there is a need for senior officers and those with DP qualifications. And there has been an emphasis on mariners to become LNG-qualified.

"When the economy kicks up, that portion of the industry that addresses energy supply — whether it is LNG or oil exploration and recovery — I think the whole field will experience growth," she said. Operators are also doing more than just STCW training to satisfy regulations for licenses. "Companies are now starting to transition into simulator courses that are specialized, dealing with more complex, non-routine, high-risk situations," said Polk. "These are unique opportunities where we can put mariners into special circumstances and allow them to hone their decision-making skills."

Companies are asking mariners to have more safety and safety management training, said Reasoner.

Then there are also qualities that a top mariner needs that are not easily packaged in traditional training courses. "We always focus on the technical side, but the soft skills, the people skills are still very important," said Reasoner.

The fact that the maritime industry has an aging workforce also creates opportunities for mariners. "As soon as they start retiring, the mates will move into captains, and there will be more spots available — these are things we have to keep in mind," said McClenaghan.

In addition, new medical regulations often trip up the older mariner. "We see this in mariners who are renewing or upgrading licenses. They are held up in medical review," said Reasoner.

When this happens, companies can lose top people. "I see a need for skilled, senior officers," she said.

Taking advantage of company training is another way for mariners to build up their skills and become better qualified, which will help them in a recession. "We will pay for schooling because a lot of times we can't get people to move up, because they don't feel comfortable or they don'™t want to go to school because it is hard for them to leave their families,” said McClenaghan.

She said that McAllister has not cut training despite the recession.

But in difficult times, companies sometimes feel they have no choice but to cut back and often those cuts are made in non-essential training programs, said Edward Nanartowich, chief operating officer of Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy.

If mariners haven't done training while employed, it puts them in a difficult position when they get laid off. "To do it themselves costs money," said Nanartowich, but mariners have not always saved to pay for their training when they are out of work. "You do have some real self-starters out there who see this as an opportunity — if they can't get work, they get trained," he said.

"They are smart enough to put away funds to advance their position in the industry," he continued. "If you have a guy who has been out there for a while, he is smart enough to know that the cost of training is a minor expense compared to what they will make when they are employed."

By Professional Mariner Staff