Guest Column: Doing More with Less

Mike Anderson.

It would appear that “doing more with less” could be the unofficial motto for today’s society, especially regarding the workplace.

Restaurants, offices, tech companies and many other businesses are feeling the squeeze of being short staffed and finding it hard to recruit and retain qualified long-term help.

What does this mean for the employees who are in the workforce? It means doing more than your normal duties in your job description.

While it is a fact that sometimes you just do what needs to be done to perform the task at hand, this extra effort is creating an environment for workers that leads to extra stress, longer hours, fatigue and eventually burnout.

This does not create a healthy and sustainable model for businesses to succeed and thrive. The COVID-19 pandemic was hard enough on workers and on business owners. And with COVID still affecting the world, the strain continues to push the limits of people and businesses alike.

In the commercial maritime industry, qualified mariners are at a premium right now. So, when an employer has an immediate vacancy to fill on the vessel, it takes quite a bit of time.

One of the more common and hard-to-remedy issues for vessel operators today is when there is a COVID-19 case onboard. There are strict protocols laid out by the U.S. Coast Guard, and depending on which state you are working in, they may dictate how you must proceed. In any case, most COVID-positive cases result in the affected crew member being removed from service of the vessel either to quarantine or due to not being fit for duty with illness. That creates a void that needs to be filled by another sailor.

In many cases, there simply isn’t another seaman to fill the vacant billet. And this is where “doing more with less” comes into action. What usually happens next: the vessel continues underway and sails short crew, if allowable by either vessel COI and/or waiver from the USCG.

Or, the vessel sits idle at a berth until it can find adequate replacements, or until the ill or quarantined seafarer is fit for duty, by either isolation timeline guidelines, negative testing or a combination of both.

In either scenario, the crew, the management and company officials must all now pull added duties by default. The mariners might now have to adjust watch schedules to longer watches and daywork duties. A mate might now have to prepare meals in between his normal navigation and cargo watches and duties. Deckhands might now find themselves spending the majority of their time in the engine room aiding with machinery service and repair.

Just being short one crewmember on vessel makes everything harder. Managers now have to adjust operations to accommodate the exposure or illness and comply accordingly to COVID guidelines. This itself can be an entire skillset of its own given the multitude of evolving policies and regulations the government implements.

At the end of the line, even the customer is affected: late shipments of their product create a strain. Imagine this happening on a daily basis and how it compounds in every region, in every industry and in every community. The fact that our supply chain continues to operate even under these strenuous conditions is a true testament to our workforce. It should be recognized accordingly in each of the transportation industries. 

No Simple Answer

I’ve been asked many times, “What are some things that could help mitigate these problems and how can we attract new talent to the maritime industry?” There is no simple answer to these questions. However, we as industry stewards must propose some ideas and work to adapt to the evolving climate as to be able to sustain a strong U.S. Merchant Marine.

Recently, some of the professional associations I work closely with have provided some great innovative ideas to bring attention to our industry and help streamline the process of becoming employable. I have discovered that one of the biggest challenges in getting a young person ready for a maritime career is cost.

Say you are a young person who is entering the workforce. Most likely, you have little to no money and no credit. Just to be employable in our field, you will need a TWIC, MMC, Med Cert, Drug Test, STCW/Lifeboatman classes and the associated airfare, lodging, meals and supplies that accompany these courses if you don’t happen to live within driving distance of these schools.

All these things cost money!

It’s estimated to cost somewhere between $3,500 and $5,500 to acquire the necessary training and certifications. This is no small fee for a young person just entering the workforce. If they were headed to college, there would be grants, student loans and payment plans available to them to help fund their educational endeavors. But I am not aware that any of the USCG-approved schools or government grants offer any type of regular financial aid or payment plans for maritime education.

Many of the trades offer apprenticeships that are free, or paid internships. It’s coined as the “earn while you learn” method. Anyone, especially young people can walk into many trades right off the street and be eligible to work with little or no upfront cost and paperwork (plumber, drywall, mechanic, carpenter, etc.). This is a huge advantage over the maritime industry.

Most of the new people I deal with are excited to start a career on the water, but once I hand them the paperwork and instructions for obtaining the required documents, it discourages many from pursuing the opportunity.

My hope is to see more focus given to the maritime industry workforce, especially when it comes to the next generation of our mariners. We need to foster a path for those who want to work and make it a more simple, efficient, direct and cost-effective one.

I fear if we do not adapt and make proper changes to how people enter our trade, we will create an even smaller labor pool, in which the worst-case scenario could lead to national security and supply-chain holes and compromise maritime business financials.

I am cautiously optimistic and see no reason why we cannot attract, train, employ and keep a strong pool of qualified U.S. mariners for generations.   

Capt. Michael Anderson Jr. is the Regional Director of the Inlandboatmen’s  Union of the Pacific, Hawai’i Region. He has worked in the commercial maritime industry most of his career both domestically and abroad, most recently sailing as captain on harbor tugs performing vessel assist duties. He resides in Honolulu, Hawaii with his wife Julia and infant daughter.