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Laid off? Flexibility and license upgrades can brighten your future

Feb 26, 2016 10:35 AM

For longer than I have been in the business, the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) has been “boom or bust.” For about five years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was an unprecedented boom in offshore jobs, fueled in large part by the oil embargo and oil crisis. Companies such as Otto Candies, Zapata and Tidewater were hiring academy graduates from all the schools, as mariners flocked to the Gulf in search of work. Then came a bust. In the mid-1980s the price of oil declined, and not long after offshore employment started to plummet. In the last 10 years or so, there has been another employment boom, commensurate with the increase in deepwater oil drilling. Last year another bust occurred as the price of oil fell precipitously. After the years of abundant jobs and top wages, employment in the Gulf has once again tanked, with company layoffs costing many top-notch professional mariners their jobs. 

Dealing with economic slowdowns and weak job markets is a fact of life in the maritime business. After graduating from the California Maritime Academy, my goal was to find a licensed position, but maritime jobs were scarce that year. It soon became obvious that getting hired as a third mate could take a very long time, and I would likely be starving and sleeping in my car long before then. To survive economically, I decided to be willing to take any job I was qualified for. So, when an ordinary seaman slot at a large West Coast towing company came up, I jumped on it. It turned out to be a great career move for me. I made good money, advanced my professional knowledge and experience, and established connections that I still have to this day — and within six months I was sailing as mate. So, if after this recent downturn you need to reassess your options, keep an open mind and consider taking any job for which you are qualified. 

Eric, a 1,600-ton master/second mate unlimited who was laid off from his captain’s position with a large GOM company, did just that when he took an able seaman job on a ship recently. I asked him how he was with working as an AB after sailing as a master for several years. He replied, “Surprisingly, I like it. Learning a new vessel and different operations is good for me professionally, and I’d rather be making money sailing as an AB than sitting on the beach wishing for a wheelhouse position. Plus, there’s already talk I could be promoted soon.” 

Experienced professionals know that just because things are slow job-wise in one sector of the industry — or in a certain area of the country — that does not mean that the rest of the maritime job market is bad. I have known mariners who’ve solved their employment problems by “following the work” and moving to an area of the country where shipping was better or pursuing a job on different types of vessels than they had been working on. Broadening your expertise by gaining experience in various sectors of the industry and in different areas of the country can be of great benefit both professionally and economically, and there are more opportunities out there than you may realize. Robert, an old shipmate of mine, went from being laid off as a mate on a supply vessel running out to the rigs to working on tankers. He ended up sailing as chief mate on large crude carriers operating coastwise and overseas. 

I have been laid off thrice in my career, and was surprised at how much time I suddenly had on my hands when out of work. While covering the financial side of things is the most important part of any plan for dealing with an employment downturn, it is not the only matter to consider. Getting all your professional documents updated, applying for any upgrades and renewals you qualify for, and obtaining any new certifications that you need or can get are all great ways to make good use of your time while polishing your resume and looking for work. When things pick back up again or you decide to shift over to a different sector of the industry, you’ll be ready to sail. 

A chief engineer and friend, William, lost his job as a chief on a towing vessel not long ago, and within a week had a plan. During his time off he updated and redid his resume, took an STCW (International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers) leadership and managerial skills class, got a physical and drug screen, and renewed his medical card. The plan worked. Recently, he received a call about a last-minute “pier head jump” for a chief engineer position on a small ship out of California. If his documents hadn’t been fully up to date, he would not have gotten the job. As it was, he flew down the next day and is currently out at sea working, making good money, and has a chance at a permanent position.

I know from experience that the day you get the layoff notice the stress begins, with concerns over paying bills and finding work in a weak job market dominating your thoughts. If you are in that place now, having lost your job due to the severe downturn in the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere, don’t despair. What goes down will come up, and perhaps even better than before. Until that day, however, give yourself every possible advantage to keep growing professionally and working on the water. By not limiting yourself to a certain job, company, type of vessel or part of the country, you may find that you will ride out this current downturn much better than you could have ever imagined the day the pink slip arrived.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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