Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Vocational Mariner—focused, committed, and on board

Excerpt from U.S. Coast Guard “Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council” magazine.

Full article by Mr. Gregg Trunnell, Director, Pacific Maritime Institute, is available at

An aging workforce and the exploding global demand for mariners have combined to create the perfect storm, which has already robbed the maritime industry of its core of officers, and leaves in its wake few viable candidates to take up the slack.

The American mariner, long thought to be overpaid, is now being actively sought for a wide range of foreign-registered marine platforms. A markedly weaker U.S. dollar has opened the door for foreign tonnage operators.

Additionally, STCW requirements significantly changed how an able-bodied seaman could aspire to become a mate. In the past, sea time, radar training, and passing the Coast Guard examination was all it took. Today’s changed standards require a total of about 20 weeks of specific course work, which can cost nearly $20,000.

What’s the bottom line? A markedly decreased window of opportunity for lower-tonnage credential candidates has merged with the reality that today’s maritime academy graduates only go to sea at half of the numbers seen only 20 years ago. Worse, those who do go to sea are typically not staying.

Crewing Your Marine Platform 1968-style
Even as the number of STCW-qualified mariners increases at a faster rate than the general mariner population, today’s astute maritime executive recognizes that the traditional, time-honored methods of recruiting, training, advancing, and—most importantly—retaining mariners are all but obsolete.

Until only recently, a crewing manager had few options when trying to grow a fleet and/or augment the stable mariners available for assignment. With the “hawsepipe” option for the upwardly mobile mariner virtually gone because of regulatory issues, many firms predictably began recruiting from their competitors.

In 1968, and with considerably more mariners vying for a decreasing number of seagoing slots, this was a satisfactory solution. Today, it serves only to drive up the cost of putting a qualified hand aboard. Beyond this, the vast majority of marine operators do not have a formally structured in-house training system. Hence, the mariner stolen from the competition is an unknown quantity.

So, other than “borrowing” from your competitors, what are your other options? You can hire recent graduates from a traditional maritime academy or attempt promoting through the traditional hawsepipe.

Another viable option is the vocational approach to mariner training. For those operators not inclined to spend millions of dollars setting up an internal training mechanism, it is now time to incorporate this method of recruiting into standard operating procedures.

Vocational Training Starts with Identifying the Ideal Apprentice
Who is a good candidate for vocational training? As it turns out, recent classes at the Pacific Maritime Institute (PMI) include a history teacher, a movie cameraman/editor, a tugboat shipyard worker, the son of a port captain, the son of a tugboat company owner, and the son of a marine pilot.

None have any formal or significant seaborne training, so the apprentice model has taken all of them from ground zero, just like the maritime academies, but with a key difference. This model focuses on a vocational approach, with a more mature candidate who is determined to achieve a career on the water.

Often these include displaced workers, those seeking a second career, and retired military. The program is also designed to identify those who are looking for an entry point into the maritime industry. The candidate is then educated about the industry and the specific companies engaging apprentices.

The Training
The first academic phase consists of two weeks of training, encompassing survival skills, personal safety and social responsibility, first aid, firefighting, leadership, rules of the road, line handling, and related simulation.

Following this initial orientation, the apprentices start the first sea phase, where they are given 12 weeks to receive eight weeks of actual sea time. This first sea phase period is probationary, and the majority of the apprentices are paid a flat rate of $845.

After two months, the apprentice is evaluated by the vessel’s officers, a port captain, and the workboat academy. If the company is comfortable with the apprentice’s performance and he/she has completed onboard training, the apprentice is elevated to full-time status as either a deckhand or deckhand/cook and is paid the going day rate for all further sea time.

The balance of the workboat academy training includes another 20 weeks of classroom and lab training, as well as three weeks of simulation training that is coordinated with 10 additional months of actual sea time. Successful graduates of the program receive a mate 1,600 GRT near coastal or a mate 500 GRT ocean license (depending on sea service), with a mate of towing endorsement (if the corresponding sea time and towing officer assessment record was accomplished on a towing vessel) and applicable STCW certification.

The Investment
Millions of dollars have been spent to ensure that PMI’s two-year workboat mate program has the best possible equipment and course curriculum. A multi-million-dollar, interactive, 330-degree, full-mission tugboat simulator is an important part of the new curriculum.

Riding the bow wave of the early success enjoyed by PMI and its partner companies, PMI’s parent and partner training facility, the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS), has built its own simulator. MITAGS has also implemented this training program based on the vocational apprentice model that is already delivering dividends for PMI’s partner companies.

The early returns are in, and the news is good. United Ocean System’s John P. King, director of safety and support services, says emphatically, “The workboat mate program has become an important part of our recruiting and retention efforts. The work PMI does to pre-screen the candidates has proven superior to our previous efforts. The instruction is first-rate. We are anxiously awaiting a comparable program on the engineering side.”

About the author:
Mr. Gregg Trunnell is the director of the Pacific Maritime Institute, Seattle, Wash. He holds a master 1,600 GRT license, a chief mate unlimited license, and a bachelor’s degree in marine transportation and business administration. He is currently studying at Seattle Pacific University for a master’s degree in non-profit leadership management. Mr. Trunnell’s most recent project focused on assisting companies and other organizations with recruitment and retention issues.

For More Information:
Pacific Maritime Institute
1729 Alaskan Way South
Seattle, WA 98134-1146
(888) 893 7829

The Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies
692 Maritime Boulevard
Linthicum Heights, MD 21090
(866) 656-5568
Fax: (410) 859-5181

Full article and 124-page “Focus on the Mariner” edition of USCG Proceedings is available at Subscribe online at

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