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The time is now for maritime outreach in public schools

Apr 23, 2012 12:00 AM

Scott, a friend of ours who's the principal of the local alternative high school, arranged for me to talk with the students about the merchant marine as a career. He told me how there had been doctors, lawyers, police and other professionals who had spoken to the kids, but never a merchant mariner. It was a rainy spring day when I walked into the building, and soon after was escorted to the classroom. At the beginning of my talk, I surveyed the students and found only two out of 25 there that morning knew anything about working as a commercial mariner, and those two had relatives in the profession. As I discussed the life of a merchant seaman — traveling to different places, getting weeks or months of vacation each year, and having a job where they feed you and give you a room on board while you're getting paid — their interest heightened. One kid then asked, “How can I become a merchant mariner?"

Getting school-aged children interested in a maritime career has been a priority for the U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd) for years. One reason for this is that the average age of American merchant mariners is 42, and getting progressively older. Government officials have expressed concern that soon there may not be enough licensed officers available to fully respond to a national crisis if needed. Only a few months ago, MarAd announced that there is "information indicating that there is a serious existing and projected mariner shortage" in segments of the maritime industry.

In an attempt to encourage young people to enter the profession, in 2008 MarAd publicly released a course outline for high schools specifically designed to help prepare students for a career in the maritime trades. It recommended college prep courses for entry into one of the maritime academies, as well as high school classes to introduce students to seamanship, port operations and shipbuilding. Today there are 19 high schools in port cities around the country that offer a maritime preparatory curriculum based on the MarAd model, including the New York Harbor School, Seattle's Ballard Maritime Academy and the Port of Los Angeles High School. An old classmate of mine from Cal Maritime teaches at the Port of LA High School, and talks proudly of the students' accomplishments and their desire to enter the industry. All of the maritime high schools have been successful in encouraging students to develop an interest in a maritime career, with many either going straight into the industry to work an entry-level job, attending a one- to two-year maritime vocational program, or going to one of seven four-year maritime academies.

While 19 maritime high schools is a good start, considering that there are 24,000 public high schools in our country, it is a drop in the bucket. Because MarAd essentially provides no money for their operation, with ever-shrinking budgets and calls for school districts to focus on the "3 Rs" and not specialized training, it is anybody's guess how long the 19 maritime high schools currently in existence can survive. Plus, with the nationwide epidemic of local school districts being strapped for cash and eliminating programs to save money, it is doubtful that any additional maritime high schools will be set up in the near future.

Outside of the students attending a maritime high school, there are close to 50 million school-aged children enrolled in 98,000 public elementary and secondary schools here in the U.S. who have little or no knowledge of the maritime industry. Considering that the stated purpose of MarAd is to promote the U.S. Merchant Marine, I think that their efforts should include every child in public school, from kindergarten through high school. I believe it's time for MarAd, in conjunction with maritime unions and companies, to create a new strategy designed to develop an interest in our industry among all elementary and secondary students.

A maritime speakers bureau data list of industry volunteers, K-12 lesson plans incorporating information on the merchant marine, and interesting media programs about shipboard life are just a few of the possible resources that could be made available. Counselors and teachers at any of the 98,000 public schools could then easily access and download these resources and make them available to their students, fostering an interest in the maritime industry in public schools nationwide for a minimum of cost. In my opinion, the time for MarAd to develop a new initiative with strong outreach programs like these is now.

Educating all public school students about the U.S. Merchant Marine would benefit not only our industry, but the nation as well. Throughout the 12 years they attend public schools, children would learn of the integral part we commercial mariners play in their lives every day, and of the impact maritime transportation has on our country's economic and national security. When these kids become adults, this knowledge will help lead them to develop into citizens who support their U.S.-flag merchant marine, and the vital work it does. After my experience that day at the alternative high school, it is abundantly clear to me that school kids need to learn about the maritime industry, and that if we do not strive to show and teach the good side of all we do — then who will?

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin'.

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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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