Murphy: Jones Act in peril if we don’t replace retiring mariners

Murphy Edit

In the three years I have been at Pacific Maritime Institute in Seattle, I have pushed through more than 1,000 people in the different programs that I am involved with. And I just love to keep track of little “surveys” of all kinds of things with the students.

One little survey I never tire of is what I like to call the “Donut Hole.” I find that at least 80 percent of the students that come through the doors are either under 35 or over 50 years old. I can go through two and sometimes three programs and I will have zero students between the ages of 35 and 50. So where are all those folks?

I have come up with possible reasons that there are so few mariners in that age group. One might be when this group of folks got into their first “real job,” life in America was good. During the 1990s and early 2000s the economy was booming and jobs shoreside were plentiful. Wages were growing, and you could make a good living while staying close to home.

Also during this time, the U.S. Coast Guard made the traditional hawsepipe approach of advancement much harder. Basically, to get to the “big seat” up in the pilothouse, you needed to go to an academy or a maritime school. There were some certifications and classes that just could not be signed-off on the vessel.

I do not blame the Coast Guard for this action, as I can clearly remember fraud and deception in licensing over the years. One case in point was the Alaskan oil spill. There were just not enough guys with licenses to man all the boats involved in the cleanup.

Working the spill, it seemed that every other guy had a brand-new license. I heard a great deal of “bar talk” pertaining to this guy or that guy who did not have any “real” sea time and still got a license. Those were not good times for the reputation of our profession.

Another thought on why the “donut hole” exists might be the general impression of the profession. What sounds more fun to a young person: Playing with a shiny cool new computer or working on a dirty old towboat? Hmmm … I would choose the towboat, but others might not.

Whatever the reason for the “donut hole,” our industry has a big problem. If we do not have enough “butts to fill the seats,” what will happen? In my humble opinion, the Jones Act will fall. So, you are not worried about the fall of the Jones Act? Well, if that happens you will be offered $45 a day rather than the $450 you get now. We all should be concerned about this — very concerned.

And what should we do about it? I feel that every mariner should start mentoring new employees if they are not already doing so. We need to increase the retention of those new mariners that are just testing the waters, so to speak. If we get a promising new employee, we need to keep him or her in the industry.

Where else in the American workplace can a basically untrained worker start at between $40,000 and $60,000 per year, and only work six months out of 12? Oh yes, and also receive room and board for free. Pretty sweet, if you ask me.

Granted, life on a boat is not for everyone. Over the years I have had to “help” a few individuals make the decision that going to sea was not for them. Some people never fit in, some just cannot stand being away from home, some people get seasick standing on the dock — you get the idea.

But when a new mariner comes along that does fit in, we need to do everything within our powers to keep that person. We need to take the time to train him or her, and show the benefits of a profession that we “old salts” have dedicated our lives to. I don’t know about you, but I care very much that our industry remains healthy and viable.

Here is one last thing I want you to think about. It is not unreasonable that 20 percent of “my age” workers will drop out of the industry every year. How long do you want to keep working? And if all of us “old guys” are gone, then those “20-somethings” will be up in the “big seat” in the pilothouse. Time is short and the clock is ticking.

I have asked many of these 20-somethings if they feel they are ready for the big seat. Usually I get the deer-in-the-headlights look back from them. If all of us old guys are gone, then all that experience is also gone. I was told by one of my recent students: “It takes 10 years to get 10 years of experience.” So true.

Be safe out there.

Capt. Dennis Murphy, of Olympia, Wash., is a longtime shipmaster and is an instructor at Pacific Maritime Institute, where he splits his time between teaching classes and working in the simulation department. He also teaches at Fremont Maritime.

By Professional Mariner Staff