Pandemic clouds job outlook for new maritime academy grads

Maritime Grads

Maritime Grads

A degree from a maritime academy usually spares one from the pain of checking job websites throughout a day, hoping a suitable position has popped up since they last hit refresh.

Maritime schools have rosy job placement numbers. SUNY Maritime College boasts a near 100 percent placement rate within 90 days of graduation. California State University Maritime Academy and Massachusetts Maritime Academy both launch nearly 90 percent of their grads into jobs within six months, according to audited surveys done within the schools. Employers often scoop up students through internships and job fairs before they even graduate.

But for the class of 2020, already reeling from an upended final semester, COVID-19 has clogged the once-steadfast school-to-job pipeline. Maritime employers are slow to hire as they face operations interruptions, an uncertain economic forecast and the risk of outbreaks on ships. Seafaring natural gas jobs have stalled particularly as demand for petroleum has declined. This has left many recent graduates in the lurch.

Stephanie Robbins, 24, who graduated from Massachusetts Maritime in June, checks LinkedIn every morning. “Everything says three to five years’ experience,” she said with frustration. “People are not looking for college experience.”

Her senior year was sidetracked when, at the start of the coronavirus outbreak in March, the school gave students 24 hours to vacate campus. She completed her degree, a bachelor’s in international maritime business, remotely from her family’s home in Marshfield, Mass.

Robbins thought she would move to New York City, working behind a desk to coordinate shipping and operations. Her plans have taken a turn. The company where she interned is laying off employees. The spring semester’s career fair was moved online and did not net her a job. It’s a state of limbo unexpected for maritime grads.

“I was focusing on schoolwork and now I am not doing anything,” she said.

To bolster her resume, Robbins is considering taking the customs broker license exam, a government certification showing a knowledge of international customs. The exam, application and background check will cost $700. Usually, a company would pay that for an employee. The exam is typically given twice a year, but the April test was canceled due to the pandemic. She’s waiting for the next exam in October.

“I need to come up with a plan B,” Robbins said. “I’ve worked in a coffee shop. I know I am always welcome back there.”

Maryanne Richards, director of career and professional services at Massachusetts Maritime, said the school has held virtual workshops for the new job environment with titles like “Making the Most Out of LinkedIn” and “Virtual Job Interview Etiquette.” This year, she said, maritime job searches have required greater effort.

Richards is ultimately hopeful. “A lot of our employers, if they aren’t hiring now, will be hiring down the road,” she said.

Some lucky students managed to snag jobs before the pandemic reshaped the world. Joe Heath, also a 2020 graduate of Massachusetts Maritime, accepted a job offer from the Military Sealift Command in February. He hoped to be placed on a ship in July or August.

Heath is aware he will be literally navigating a new world, where an increase in coronavirus cases could close a port or strand a ship.

“I don’t have any hesitation,” he said. “I’m young. I don’t have anything holding me back. I want to get student loans paid off as quickly as possible.”

Patrick Zimmer, who is a 2020 graduate of Texas A&M Maritime Academy in Galveston and its newly hired director of operations, said that maritime hiring used to be very old school. Recent graduates met employers in person at job fairs and handed them crisp paper resumes.

Students were able to make an impression. “(The employer) would remember, ‘Oh, I remember him from Texas A&M; he presented well,’” Zimmer said. “A lot of people are accepting that the traditional way of job hunting will be diminished. They have accepted it will be harder.”

Zimmer, who graduated with a master’s degree in maritime administration and logistics after stints in the Navy and work in oil fields, said the dicey prognosis for jobs on vessels is one reason he accepted a job at the school. Now he’s in the position of advising students and new graduates. Some of them, he said, may have to take deck hand jobs as opposed to jobs on bridges. Others might not be hired for any job until the situation has stabilized.

As for the long term, he is unsure what to tell students, as the future is as murky to him as it is to anyone.

“I don’t think things will go back to normal soon,” Zimmer said about job searches. “There is hope everything will get to a point where it’s manageable.”

By Professional Mariner Staff