Keeping the loyalty of seasonal mariners

May 15, 2009 12:00 AM

Several years ago I was on vacation from my regular job on an oil tanker and had the summer off. One morning over coffee my wife and I were discussing how we could use extra cash for some home projects, and agreed that a summer relief job was just the ticket. So, I interviewed for a seasonal mate's position at a local passenger ferry company. After completing the interview process, the operations manager told me they'd give me a call. Later she informed me that I got the job, and after being fitted for a uniform was scheduled to start the following day.

Many maritime companies provide mainly seasonal jobs. Fish processing vessels, ships and boats working in northern climes like Alaska or the Great Lakes, and tourist-based passenger vessels like the ones I worked on that summer often don't keep extra people employed year round. Many mariners working for these companies are out of a job at the end of the season and never return. This results in a cycle of lost talent at the end of the season, as well as lost time and money sifting through applications and interviewing prospective candidates in the annual scramble for new seasonal employees.

In January, I was invited to speak at the Passenger Vessel Association's conference, MariTrends 2009, held in San Francisco. My talk focused on improving the return rate of seasonal mariners. I drew not only from researching current trends and recent requirements, but also from my own experience.

After getting hired by the passenger vessel company that summer, except for the personnel manager who conducted the interview, I was never introduced to any shoreside staff. Throughout the summer I'd see people walking around the docks — but was never sure if they were company employees or not. One evening at the end of the shift, a couple of weeks after I started, the skipper sent me into the dock shop to get a box of supplies he'd ordered for the wheelhouse. I asked, "How will I know where the box is?" He replied, "Just ask the guy with the overalls." In the shop, I asked a guy in overalls for help. He smiled and said, "Sorry, wrong guy in overalls. I'm the janitor!" By the end of my summer job at a company with dozens of employees, I knew my fellow crewmembers, the operations manager and her boss, one maintenance person, and one janitor!

From that experience I realized a short meeting at the beginning of the season where new hires, steady employees, and company management introduce themselves to each other would be of benefit to all. Mariners working as "temps" would then at least recognize other company employees — and vice versa. It would also be an opportune time for any company policies to be disseminated, and to conduct ISM (International Safety Management) or ISPS (International Ship and Port Security) Code training now required for new hires on the vessels. This short meeting would improve security on the docks, encourage open communication and interaction between office personnel, dockside staff, and vessel crews — and help improve the teamwork all smooth running companies thrive on.

Another of my experiences that summer involved the chief engineer, also hired as a temp, who told me that he had tried to make a few engineering suggestions based on what he had seen and used on other vessels in his career. Even though he felt that these suggestions could have saved the company thousands of dollars, the response was basically, "You're just temporary. Keep quiet and do your job." I found that attitude archaic, especially since offering bonuses for money-saving employee suggestions has been an effective management tool for decades. Rockwell, a technology company involved in the maritime industry, gives a financial bonus for employees' ideas that are chosen. Opening a line of communication for suggestions helps make people feel like they are part of a team, that their opinions matter. It could also lead to more efficient vessel operations and improved safety, and save the company money.

By the end of the summer, with the tourist season coming to a close, many mariners were laid off. I got my last paycheck in the mail and never applied for work there again. At the conference I suggested that another short meeting at the end of the season, with just the temporary crewmembers, would allow the company to thank them properly for a job well done. After all, those extra mariners are instrumental in getting the companies through their busy time. An additional step I suggested was for the company to make agreements with other companies in different sectors of the industry to offer priority hiring during the off season. I believe this would help develop a loyal group of returning mariners willing to work as temps.

Finally, I firmly believe that mariners should be given a financial incentive for returning the following year. Many outfits pay new hires the same as someone who's come back, but savvy companies know that even a small increase in pay honors the employee's loyalty — and encourages them to come back the next season. By getting seasonal people who already know the job, understand the operations, and have experience, the costs of customer dissatisfaction due to mistakes caused by crewmembers' inexperience or unfamiliarity with the operation could be avoided.

It may sound old-fashioned, but I think companies that consider their temporary mariners as valuable members of the team have a smoother, safer operation — and in many different ways save money as a result. There is a fish processing ship based in Seattle which has almost a 100 percent return of seasonal mariners. When I asked the personnel manager why the company has such a great return rate, she told me, "We treat everyone with respect." 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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