Maritime industry looking for solutions to shortages of qualified crew

The shortage of available crewmembers has been growing for years. Employers have responded by working closely with maritime academies, seamen’s unions and apprenticeship programs.

“It used to be that there were too few jobs and too many people looking,†said Maritime Administrator Sean T. Connaughton. “The tide has turned and that situation is reversed.† 

Increased oil exploration is one cause.

“In the past there was a relatively stable pool of vessels that were utilized 50 percent of the time,†said Tucker Gilliam, Crowley Maritime Corp.’s director of East Coast and Gulf Coast petroleum services. “Now they are utilized 80 percent of the time, requiring more people. Coupled with the new boats built in the past two years and those now on order, it translates into greater demand for mariners.â€

The shortage of experienced officers can be traced back to the industry’s slow period of the 1980s and 1990s.

“Anyone who graduated from a maritime academy and wanted to go to sea would have to wait a year between jobs, so they left the industry,†said Ira Douglas, Crowley’s manager of marine recruiting and development. “A result is the manpower gap of 35- to 40-year-olds who should be there now.â€

The stringent STCW licensing, training and security requirements implemented in the late 1990s “really shut down a lot of the hawespipers that traditionally were the industry’s resource for mariners coming in and also made it a lot more difficult for mariners to upgrade licenses,†Douglas said. New security mandates like TWIC will be another hiring challenge.

Under the previous rules, a prospective deepwater mariner could get a letter of intent from a company, give it to the Coast Guard, get on a ship and learn while being paid. After enough sea time, that person could take a 50-question test and become an able seaman, an oiler or perform another duty. With STCW, a person now has to go to school first for safety training, learn firefighting and other skills, and pass a background check, said J.C. Wiegman, director of training for the Seafarers International Union.

The STCW requirements have had long-term benefits, however.

“I don’t consider the new rules to be a bad thing,†said John Witte Jr., executive vice president of Donjon Marine in Hillside, N.J. Witte explained that better-trained individuals enable crews to “avert potential problems and help avoid putting people and equipment at unnecessary risk.â€

Douglas noted that incident rates after STCW have shown improved performance and safety.

Training requirements for mariners to advance are increasingly complex and expensive, although the Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center is working to restructure and centralize the mariner licensing and documentation programs. Maritime academies and schools are also important.

“It is at the point if you don’t attend an academy, it’s impossible to become an officer,†Gilliam said.

Marine employers are using a variety of recruiting tactics by working with maritime academies, seamen’s unions and apprenticeship programs. Assisting mariners with financial aid and scheduled time off to attend Coast Guard-approved training courses will become increasingly important for retention.

“The industry’s benefits, including earning a very livable wage, will have to be sold to prospective employees,†Douglas said.

Meeting the retention challenge “is not rocket-science stuff. Treat people well and do right by them,†Gilliam said.

Crowley Maritime has 4,300 employees worldwide, but its crewing challenges are not much different from those at Donjon Marine, which has 300 employees.

“You just have to go out and find the right people, provide a good working environment, good benefits, excellent wages and still do this in an economic situation that is very competitive,†Witte said.

By Professional Mariner Staff