Training plays a key role in keeping specialized vessels operating

Complex vessels like Rigdon Marine’s St. Louis, with its diesel-electric propulsion system, are creating the need for more highly trained mariners. (Brian Gauvin)

Over 12,000 mariners are employed on the vessels that support the offshore oil and gas industry. And with drilling at a 20-year peak, demand for people with their specialized skills is growing.

The booming liquefied natural gas industry also offers new opportunities. In June maritime unions and the country’s maritime academies signed an agreement creating a universal set of training standards for the LNG industry. That pact should help mariners get LNG jobs.

Two other factors are putting trained offshore vessel crew at a premium: Many mariners are approaching retirement age and the industry is building a new generation of sophisticated vessels that will require highly trained crew.

“We are in the middle of one of the biggest rebuilding efforts we have seen in many years,” said Ken Wells, president of the Offshore Marine Services Association (OMSA), which represents over 100 companies that own and operate marine service vessels. Wells estimates there are 150 newbuilds coming out over the next three to four years.

“These are going to be technically advanced vessels,” Wells said. “We are going to need some of the best-trained, best-skilled mariners we have ever had, and we’re going to need them in good numbers.”

Wells said his organization is working on a detailed report on the numbers needed, but he estimates 1,500 crew for the 150 newbuilds.

Many in the industry say that the hawsepipe is still a preferable way for OSV mariners to be trained, even though it has become increasingly difficult. “If I’m going to give them responsibility for a vessel like this, I want to know his background and have him come up through the hawsepipe,” said Wells.

But the new requirements of STCW ‘95 and the U.S. Coast Guard licensing process, which now includes even more thorough background checks, is making it especially difficult for the industry.

“In the offshore business, so much of the work falls outside the realm of the traditional thought pattern of what the work of a mariner is,” said Ken Parris, vice president of OMSA. The ideal system is to bring mariners on as deck hands and give them a combination of on-the-job training and classroom training. “The hawsepipe is the preferred methodology, but it is a much longer and steeper hawsepipe than ever before,” said Parris.

That means who you hire can be a very tough call, because of all the training required.
Throughout the industry, companies pay for all training, Parris said. “Our companies make extreme capital investments in their personnel in just the training alone,” said Parris. A company has to evaluate a young mariner and decide whether that mariner will be worth the $50,000 in training costs to take a deck hand and make him into a captain.

When STCW ‘95 came along, with special licenses specifically for the OSV industry, OMSA came up with its own courses to train mariners for these certificates. OMSA worked with Houston Marine Training Services of New Orleans, La., to develop a set of courses specifically geared for crews of offshore vessels. The courses include:
• rating forming a part of a navigational watch for OSV vessels;
• rating forming a part of an engineering watch for OSV vessels;
• domestic OSV mate competency assessment;
• domestic OSV master competency assessment;
• and domestic OSV chief engineer competency program.

OMSA gained Coast Guard approval of the courses.

More importantly, the courses were designed so that mariners could learn on board vessels, rather than spending months in the classroom. Houston Marine designed the course materials and kept ownership of them, said Greg Szczurek, Houston’s manager of curriculum development. “It is done as on-the-job training is done, by the officers who train the crews,” said Szczurek.

William Martinez, an AB with Rigdon Marine, is taking a  dynamic positioning course at Houston Marine Training Center in Kenner, La.  Martinez, who is currently a crewmember of a supply vessel, is working on obtaining a mate’s license. (Courtesy Houston Marine Training)

Companies can pick up the teaching materials for these courses, apply for Coast Guard approval and then conduct their own in-house training.

For example, Rigdon Marine worked with Houston Marine and got four OSV courses approved. Rigdon received a $200,000 grant through the Incumbent Worker Training Program to help pay for training costs, according to David Darling, Rigdon’s director of human resources.

Houston Marine created textbooks for the mariners and assessment books for the instructors, who are the officers on board the vessel. The books are substantial; for example, the chief engineer assessment guide is 80 pages, said Szczurek. The guides include questions officers are to ask to determine if the mariner has the knowledge required and a means to score mariners as they demonstrate proficiency in the required tasks. The officers also come to Houston Marine’s school for a one-day course on how to assess mariners. “We provide the very best tools we can for the assessors, and provide them guidance and instruction to do a good job of assessing,” he said.

Szczurek said the new STCW ‘95 requirement was a chance to teach mariners tasks specific to the OSV industry. In the past, with more general requirements, mariners were taught skills needed for deep-draft vessels, for example, and were not taught skills specific to offshore vessels. After they got their license, they would pick up those skills on offshore vessels.

Now, when mariners are taught about cargo storage in the OSV courses, it is about handling bulk materials such as oil mud and fuel. “The people who work on OSVs need to know how to work those systems and become familiar with those operations,” said Szczurek. “It makes pedagogical sense to make the instructions relevant to the vessel’s operations.”

One of the major changes in the industry is the switch to larger, more powerful vessels with dynamic positioning systems and diesel-electric propulsion systems. Szczurek said that DP may even become an STCW endorsement. And some operators are asking for two DP-certified mariners per vessel to be on watch at all times, which means vessels have to have four mariners certified in DP. “In the event that someone is disabled or stricken, they want someone who is always on the bridge and able to take over and know DP operations,” he said.

The new requirements mean that training schools have had to make changes. Delgado Maritime, Fire and Industrial Training Center, in Mandeville, La., now offers management and leadership classes and a new program on creating a culture of safety. “We’re training new guys in leadership,” said Rick Schwab, the center’s project manager. “They go from entry-level … to captain. They have to get the skills to work on conflict resolution and diversity. We try to make a well-rounded, long-term employee.”

Delgado works closely with industry. For example, Montco Offshore Inc. of Galliano, La., which owns and operates a fleet of lift boats, sends its crew to Delgado for training. Montco is currently working with Delgado to develop a simulator for lift boats.

Because lift boats are so unusual, Montco finds that the best training is still working on the boats. “It’s still basically on-the-job training,” said Troy Gisclair, Monto’s safety manager. “You hope you are with a group of captains that allows you to get up there and take over control when it’s time to jack up — with proper supervision,” Gisclair said. “We all know you learn better by doing.”

Darling said the biggest challenge for Rigdon is that more and more people are seeking work from outside the Gulf Coast, and they do not have experience in the OSV industry. “Our biggest challenge is not so much getting them in, but getting them in for a hitch or two and making sure it will work out for us and them,” Darling said.

Training in the OSV industry is so specialized that some companies have developed their own training centers. Edison Chouest Offshore of Galliano, La., started training employees in its main office building in 1999. By the end of the year, the company built a two-story center. It now offers 24 classes year round, five-days a week, ranging from courses in personal survival, bridge resource management and Automatic Radar Plotting Aids (ARPA) to basic DP, advanced DP and basic DP for engineers.

Edison Chouest Offshore has created its own training complex in Galliano, La. The center, which has a Kongsberg dynamic positioning simulator, offers classes year round. (Edison Chouest Offshore)

The training center includes a Kongsberg student dynamic positioning simulator with eight stations, six GMDSS/radar/ARPA student simulator stations and an indoor environmental pool with a life raft, a simulator for helicopter-underwater-egress training and a fire field, since basic and advanced firefighting are offered.

The Galliano Training Center also offers several U.S. Coast Guard-approved courses specifically geared to the offshore industry. These courses include: competency assessment courses for OSV master and OSV mate; an engineering assessment course for offshore vessels over 3,000 gross tons; and a special training course for large OSVs to increase mariners’ STCW ‘95 certificate from vessels up to 3,000 gross tons to vessels up to 6,000 gross tons.

Edison Chouest is working on plans to double the size of the training center, adding classroom labs and more simulators, according to Lonnie Thibodeaux, director of corporate communications for Edison Chouest. Before the company built the center, it had to send its 1,400 mariners “all over the place to be trained,” said Thibodeaux. Those in charge of the company decided, “we have land here — why not build our own center? We had housing, we had a dining room here, we had parking here — it just plain made sense.”

It has been worth the investment. “Our training center provides us an unbelievable advantage when recruiting employees,” said Allen Berthelot, Edison Chouest’s personnel manager, in the spring edition of the company newsletter. All training, housing, certificates, renewals and other paperwork are free.

There are new developments in the LNG industry that should help mariners. On June 5 an agreement was signed at the U.S. Maritime Administration in Washington to implement a universal set of training standards for crews training for LNG ships and for deep-water ports serving LNG ships. MarAd has negotiated agreements with several LNG companies to use U.S. mariners on ships calling at deep-water ports.

The LNG training standards create objectives to measure competence, knowledge, understanding and proficiency, and also methods and criteria for evaluating competence. The standards apply to entry-level personnel, persons with specific cargo-handling duties and for persons in charge.

The voluntary agreement was signed by all seven maritime academies and representatives from the American Maritime Officers; Marine Engineers Beneficial Association; Masters, Mates & Pilots; Sailors’ Union of the Pacific and Seafarers International Union.
The Calhoon MEBA Engineering School in Easton, Md., is already training 15 union members to become persons in charge for new American and worldwide deep-water LNG ports. MEBA announced in June it signed an agreement with Armada Companies LLC to provide PIC marine officers for a new deep-water LLB port 116 miles off the coast of Louisiana, operated by Excelerate Energy LLC of Woodlands, Texas. Union members are also being trained for Excelerate’s deep-water port, to be located 13 miles southeast of Gloucester, Mass., which could be operating by December.

MEBA has been training mariners for the LNG industry for 25 years. It took about four months to create the new training package being used for the union members, who will work on the deep-water ports, according to William Doyle, MEBA’s director of governmental and legislative affairs. The 15 union members already being trained have sailed on LNG vessels and have many of the credentials they will need to serve as a PIC. These members will be trained by December, Doyle said. “People are really excited,” he said. “This is a real breakthrough.”

By Professional Mariner Staff