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Murphy: Tugboat companies need to accept cadets from training programs

Oct 2, 2014 04:21 PM

To tug or not to tug? That is the question!

Just because I am mostly teaching these days does not mean that I would not still like to go back to sea. I have two friends who are “head hunters” (job recruiters) and I keep expecting them to come up with that “plum” boat job for me. And they just keep coming up with the same old openings that I do not fit into.

The jobs that keep coming up always include engineer positions and masters with towing endorsement. Again and again my friends give me a call and ask if I know any promising candidates to fill these positions. Apparently, if you have one of these tickets you can go to work today! But you will need to be able to travel on short notice and be away from home for a while.

So why are there always these particular positions open? I think it is a bit of a complex question. And I do not think it is a matter of paying more for these positions. No, an extra $40 a day is not going to magically produce more applicants. I believe what we need is more butts to fill the seats. We just do not have enough trained and experienced mariners to fill these spots.

One of the underlying problems I see for our industry is the “graying of the workforce.” Yup, that sounds exactly like me. I am still healthy and active, but I just do not want to work as hard as I used to. And do not even ask me if I want to work that six-hours-on/six-hours-off rotation anymore. It would kill me now. I might ask how much longer do YOU want to work before retiring? Or at least before working less?

The workforce is aging and there is already a shortage of experience in some areas. The next question might be, “So what do we do about it”? Well, I do have some thoughts on the subject. First off, “way back then” when I was starting off in the maritime industry, most every boat had “OSs”. You may or may not remember the Ordinary Seaman that used to populate the decks all over the industry.

Well, there just are not very many companies anymore that run with OSs on board. And if you do not have OSs, then where does the AB come from? And if you do not have ABs moving up, then where do you get the junior mates? You get the point.

Ah yes, this is about the point where someone chimes in and says: “We can get the junior mates from the academies!” Fine, there are new mariners coming out of the academies all the time, but where do most of them end up? I have often asked the academy grads I run across in my different programs what the folks they graduated with are doing.

I ask them if any of their “fellows” were looking forward to standing in the rain, and the mud and the mosquitoes on the Yukon River, pumping fuel to a village tank farm? At least so far, not one of them has said yes to that question.

I find that many of the academy grads want to work in a nice, clean air-conditioned vessel for a few years, and then move to the office so they can be with their friends every evening. Give a young person a choice between playing with a shiny new computer, or working on a dirty old towboat…

So, what can we do about this lack of recruits that actually want to work out there in the field? I have a two-prong approach to address the need. First off, the maritime industry needs to start staffing the fleet with OSs again. I know this costs money, but we need that base to pull from for the future.

As for the question of cost, what does it cost a company if you cannot sail due to not having a full crew? Or what about accepting a new crewmember that you really do not want on board? And you can only “steal” so many people from other companies. If every operation is stealing from the “other guys,” eventually you will run out of mariners to steal. Then what will you do? 

My second thought is beef up the trade schools. Not everyone needs to go get a four-year university degree. If everyone goes off to college and gets a degree, who will fix our plumbing and tune up our cars and drive all the vessels? And how many of those college grads with — let’s say a degree in French literature — start a new job at a salary range between $40,000 and $60,000 per year and only works six out of 12 months! Oh yes, and also receives free room and board! That sounds pretty good to me, but I am just an “old guy.” I would think that it would appeal to many young people today, if given a chance. Not all of them, but enough that if we cultivate the potentials, then we could get them into mariner training programs and then out in the field. 

Here at the Pacific Maritime Institute, we have something called the Work Boat Program. People can apply to the program and they get screened to determine if they would be a good fit. From there, a prospective company for the intern aspect of the program interviews them. If they pass the interview, then they are in. No vast past experience is needed, just a desire to become something.

The biggest restriction to this program is the lack of companies wanting to take on these cadets. In my humble opinion, every maritime company out there should be involved in some such program. Yes, I understand this is a long-term investment for the future — the program runs for 28 months per group — but it will benefit the company greatly in the future.

When these folks come out of the program, they are not only trained up to the level of third mate, but also have “real” experience on the vessels. Now that sounds like a win-win situation to me! This program seems like a perfect conduit for qualified new mariners to slip right into the job. I wish something like this existed when I was the right age!

If you are a maritime business, I strongly urge you think about the future needs of our industry (and your company specifically). Times are changing, and you should be thinking of what your staffing needs will be. You might consider getting involved with one of these training programs.

Capt. Dennis Murphy, of Olympia, Wash., is a longtime shipmaster and is an instructor at Pacific Maritime Institute, where he splits his time between teaching classes and working in the simulation department. He also teaches at Fremont Maritime. 

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