Mystery of the missing engineer(s)

Martin onboard the DEV Galena, a ferry own and operated by the Government of British Columbia in 1997

In the mid-nineties, I was in Diesel Engine mechanic training program at Camosun College, in Victoria BC. The instructor, Don Wilson, a legend in the diesel mechanic world of these parts, approached me with an interesting career prospect. He was in contact with Ian Smart, Director at the Marine Branch of the BC Ministry of Transportation, which oversaw the “fresh water” ferries in the province. They actually had only three “large” vessels, but were looking to take on three Marine Engineering apprentices, and wondered if I’d be interested.

I don’t quite remember the specifics of my first meeting with Ian, but his old school Scottish Marine Engineering straightforwardness left a strong impression on me. In the small office in Victoria, I was assisted by a younger chap, motoring along the office, in a wheelchair, while I looked at a piston that was clearly used, but looking in great shape.

I would later learn that chap, was a Marine Engineer who had been in a car accident and lost his legs. My understanding is that he, and the marine branch, was instrumental in the design of the evacuation chutes on ferries. The most important feature was its simplicity of operations, accessible to disabled passengers. At the time, it was quite something; and has since been widely adopted. That piston, was pulled from an engine after 70,000 hrs plus on it, from the Marine Branch’s Albion ferry, which were some of the first in the province to run on natural gas.

Although I did not meet the initial hiring criteria, Ian said he would keep the spot open for me until “x date”. I had to take advance math at the local university over the next several months, but I eventually met the criteria. In May 1996, I joined the Marine Branch on the Kootenay Lake Ferry, MV Anscomb. I was a full time, unionized employee of the Ministry with all the attached benefits and decent pay.

In the nineties, in British Columbia, Canada, this was one hell of an achievement.

In those first meetings at that office, those little things made me excited at the potential of joining this organization, which I considered progressive. I remember thinking that if I was to get traumatically hurt in this field, which is a real possibility in this career, here I had, in front of me, an example that I could continue to live with dignity and provide for myself. With that piston, the Marine Branch was utilizing new technology that made less of an impact on the environment, many years before being required to, or forced to. Waiting for me to attain the requirements, and not automatically saying no, like it is so common now, showed me that this employer was willing to invest in me, and support me – to trust me. Another words, they exhibited a corporate culture that I was attracted to.

First day of the rest of my life

Later that year, I moved to North Vancouver, where I would start the theoretical portion of the apprenticeship. The first morning at Pacific Marine Training Campus (now BCIT Marine Campus) I met my fellow apprentices from different local companies. I met two others from the Ministry, one from Seaspan, one from Rivtow – big tug boat operators at the time. I must note that the Ministry of Transport was, by far, the smallest “company” sponsoring an apprentice, which says nothing about the many other BC companies which did not participate.

The much hyped, bulk of the class was to be from BC Ferries. At first, it was to be 12 apprentices they would sponsor, several days later it was 8, and finally, we heard the company had chosen to cancel its participation about a month into the program. We had a couple of people “wander” in for a few months, here and there. In the second year, one apprentice from BC Ferries did eventually join us. The six of us would then proceed down the remainder of training journey together.

The next four years was a tumultuous, but exhilarating time for me, I was employed, traveling the province, going from shipboard assignments and classrooms, to MED training and back again. I challenged and passed my Fourth Class Certification, and more or less, was let go from the Marine Branch, as agreed, upon completion of my apprenticeship, and I owed them nothing. That was our initial deal – the ministry didn’t actually have any position that required a fourth class ticket, so my employment options with the Marine Branch were limited, but this was made clear to me before I was hired.

Colm, Daryl, Brian, and instructor Brian, at PMTI in North Vancouver 1996.

The follow through

Now you might be shaking your head, why would a company do this!!! Well of course, but at the end of the day, training the next generation is expensive, but critical to our collective future. From this program I remain in the industry, and raised a family and contributed to my community.

What about the other apprentices? The Rivtow guy realized a bit late that he had serious sea sickness. The Seaspan guy continues to work for Seaspan to this day. I am the only one from the Ministry to still work at sea, one retired, the other moved his skills to the movie industry. The lady from BC Ferries is still in the industry last I heard, but not with BC Ferries. The apprenticeship program was “too costly” for industry and dropped after our class started, in favor of the marine and deck cadet program, where students pay their own way, and fight for their own berth.

Investing in people require a “village” to take a long view

I bring this up, because I want to illustrate the investment that was needed by forward thinking people and organizations, in cooperation with governments and training institutions. In the mid-nineties and now, it was very clear that major investments were needed in skills for the drastic shortage that was to be, that is now. Of course, the powers that be, chose to ignore the warnings from the early 1990’s and we are right on schedule, as it takes about 15-20 years in Canada to train and certify a first class Marine Engineering Officer. Each large BC Ferries vessel probably takes about four First Class Marine Engineers to operate. 

Of late, there aren’t many days that pass without disruption announcements made by organization such as BC Ferries that cannot find marine engineers, or blame lack of crew, for scheduling impacts. Sure, it may be mostly COVID related; but the reality, in my opinion, is that BC Ferries, like many organizations, in BC, and around the world, has not supported, even mildly, the professional development of seafarers – especially of Marine Engineers.

The BC Ministry of Transport’s MV Anscomb on Kootenay Lake, near Nelson, BC. Pictured taken in 1996. My “first ship”, since retired to the depths of the deep lake.

About BC Ferries

For those not familiar to British Columbia, my home province, on the western coast of Canada, BC Ferries is a “private company” with the sole owner, being the province of British Columbia. They state that they are not a crown corporation, as many of these types of companies generally are, therefore not “political” and competing on the “open market”. It is a major part of daily life, and significant employer of Canadian seafarers.

With the fall of communism in the nineties, there was considerable migration into BC, and Canada, of foreign trained officers. This buoyed BC Ferries with an attitude that no matter what, we are the biggest and will command the market of local seafarers, and they will “bow to us”. Most of that influx dried up after 2008, when the realization of the high cost of living and taxes, did not match the benefits provided. Those that remained are now retiring en mass, whilst the usual corporate culture persist, and in conflict with good human relations.

BC ferries was able to stave off the inevitable a little longer by poaching Canadian navy personnel, which, with their existing pension, could undertake to work at BC ferries.

My old BC Ferries coveralls, from my brief time working for them in 2018.

Some entities do invest in people

Yet another advertisement on my Facebook timeline, this one for the Navy, in 2022.

BC Ferries is not unique in these business practices, but they are a good example of this management style, pervasive in Canada, and its results. The other large employers of seafarers on the BC Coast are the tugs, the Canadian Coast Guard, and the Canadian Navy.

The Canadian Coast Guard has always been a progressive institution in terms of training the next generation of seafarers, at least for their own purposes – as it should be. The Coast Guard has also kept entry level position open on the ships, unlike many companies, which means people have a path to come into the industry and be able to progress.

The Coast Guard has its own college and continuously runs programs to produce marine officers. In addition to their own college, they also take on additional cadets from other colleges. Although hobbled by less than ideal wages, the Coast Guard has made the investment needed to maintain their workforce of maritime officers.

A great deal of commercial companies are reaping the benefits of that federal investment in Canada. I remember being on the Tanu in 2001, with two coast guard college engineering cadets and two BCIT cadets at the same time, even thought there was only three engineers onboard. Few companies on the BC coast, then and now, provide berths for cadets to even experience sea life, and gain much needed sea time.

The Navy, is, well, the navy; but they run their own training programs. The training is relevant across markets, especially for engineers, but certification remains an issue, not to mention major differences in corporate culture, budgets and operational goals. But at least they have and continue to make investments in training, again, to some benefit of commercial entities.

Tugs in BC do not have any real training program for engineers. I know of no companies that even offer a training berth or even support any such training. Its a little better going east in Canada; the great lakes fleet has been proactive in providing berths and supporting the cadet program.

A unique situation (?)

Mostly, the tugs, great lakes shipping, etc, like many purely commercial marine endeavors in Canada, has relied on attrition – attrition of regulations. They have carved out every nook and cranny to park themselves in, to be able to cut crew as much as possible. Under size vessels, lengths and tonnage interpretations, horsepower ratings, “de-rating”, ever expanding “port limits” and changes in various definitions has muddied the waters so much, its hard for inspectors to know which way is up anymore, or if an engineer is required, if so, which class. The federal government, petrified to say anything negative about the supreme dominance of corporate priorities over everything else, has been a sympathetic friend. Exploiting the recent immigrants has also worked well.

However these strategies are running out of steam. The ridiculousness of the complexity of regulations, or lack thereof by Transport Canada, is almost comical, if they weren’t so short-sighted and destructive. Massive, highly powered tugs are now crewed by two people, none who have much, if any, engineering training. Overall, the rate of accidents on the BC coast, involving mostly “small” tugs, is quite an eye opener. Better companies are realizing that they have a considerable capital investment in these vessels, and no properly trained crew is actually looking after them. Even MBA types are starting to see this as a problem.

A couple of years ago, the head of the BC marine organization, representing BC tug owners, was laying out his new approach of creating a “novel” apprentice program. He was not happy when I reminded him that their lack of support 20 years ago, ultimately killed the Marine Engineering Apprenticeship Program that already existed for many years. Mind you, this new apprenticeship program does not include engineers as far as I know, as the industry has been pretty successful at getting rid of engineering officers altogether. On the other hand the Small Vessel Machinery Operator at local training institutions is selling out fast.

One thing is for sure, the time for the fancy footwork by charismatic “captains of industry”, anointed by the latest business school MBA, while clutching their copy of “how to influence people and win friends” is coming home to roost. The lack of relevant knowledge in the decision making process is quite obvious and is causing chaos, which will be very expensive to sort out.

Who has invested then?

A constant advert showing up on my Facebook timeline of late, 2022.

Not many, but I know some young women and men that have entered the cadet program and all it entails. Many others have put their families through endless studying sessions, exam anxiety, to reach higher classifications. These people, because of the hardship involved, are the committed ones, passionate ones – they have made the investments.

Those who have paid their own way through school, fighting the whole way up to reach the qualifications they have, are not going to settle for the peanuts falling off the establishment’s table. Marine Engineering is a complex set of skills with high training costs, tremendous personal social consequences and considerable entry barrier. These captains of industry have danced around for so long, deferred the required collective investment in human capital, that the few that have not left the industry are deflated and burnt out, and certainly tired of the attitude.

There have been a few companies, like the Ministry of Highways, and the occasional oddball, that have taken the initiative. But by and large the industry has punted the responsibility far down the road, and onto the shoulders of the individuals. “Crisis” after “crisis” have been used, conveniently, to further explain lack of investment in training.

Global issue

In a recent communication BC Ferries astutely highlighted that the shortage of seafarers, officers, and in particular Marine Engineering officers, is a global challenge. I am pretty confidence that the relation between the rise of the modern MBA strut is an inverse relationship to engineer’s engagement. In my opinion the same issues are affecting all aspect of our social fabric, but generally engineers are highly capable people by nature, adaptable and probably the least to complain about their situation. By the time anyone else realizes there is a problem, its firmly entrenched.

The entrenched problem is that exploitation, cajoling, arm twisting of labour, for that prettier spreadsheet picture is the main goal of management these days. That translates to stagnate wages, and very little support for locals to train to be deck and engineering officers, even less for people “we” have not much in common with.

One of the results of this lack of support from Canadian companies has been that foreign companies have realized what bargain Canadian officers actually are – highly educated, keen and even with the unfair tax situation, able to work outside Canada. In particular, the cruise and offshore sectors have capitalized on this. These sectors have been taking quite a few hits of late, so consistency is an issue, but overall this path is now a preferred one for most young Canadian officers.

Some memories from “fresh water ferry fleet” in BC, from my collection.

Going to get worst

Ian Smart, and a few others like him, may have had many faults, but for me, he represented pragmatic leadership based on experience, with an eye for the future. Perhaps the language they used wasn’t as slick as the “communication” style our leaders now employ, or the army of “communication expert” they employ to message for them. Yes, looking after your people is a long game in a business world of three months intervals. Leaders put out fires! And everyone loves firemen – right.

Those that plan, and budget for the future are boring, lack panache, and negatively affect the bottom line – after all the results of decisions made, will not fall on those who made them. Yes, it takes a collective investment, but if it is not made, than you don’t have the right to squawk about a shortage, you now need to pay for the investments others have made.

The trades department at Camosun College was physically way “out in the bush” – out of sight. I remember when I was there, taking my Heavy Duty Mechanic course, then the Diesel Engine course, all the talk from the schools leadership was about closing the decrepit buildings down, to make room for new business and computer buildings.

Computers were so much cooler and progressive. Master Mechanics like Don Wilson retired, with no one replacing them, and the programs faltered, until 20 years later when “trades” became “trendy” again. Those same leaders once again became heroes, for “putting out fires”. The reality is that trades, are not even the starting point for a career as a Marine Engineer, even though it should be.

Ian Smart passed several years ago. The Marine Branch’s ferry operations are now “privatized”. Call me pessimistic, but if I did get hurt at work, I am pretty sure I would get put to the curb faster than a cheetah chasing a gazelle. My full time job would then be to navigate the bureaucratic mess that one faces in a work related injury.

Have a read here, from my 2012 article on the main website, about the shockingly low rate of training in BC. Many have stated that it is impossible, but no one has refuted my findings.

My experience

As a citizen of Vancouver Island, and a Marine Engineer I have sent my resume so many times to BC Ferries, since the late nineties. At one time, I just did it for fun, because they were very consistent in the response I would get – a standard PFO letter – “Please Fuck Off”, as I call them – to add to my pile. I have a pile full of them from Canadian ship operators, those same operators now squawking they can’t “find people”. 

It has cost me a great deal to attain and maintain my certificate as a Canadian Engineering Officer. I’ve done alright. My journey has come at great costs though. It was done the impression there would be a return on investment, but so far, my income has stayed stagnate since 2010 – on the “bright” side I still work with the same old junk.

I have not expanded my certification, because I did not feel supported by companies or by our regulators. There was no way I was making any further investments, when the cabotage is constantly being eroded by the establishment. I am glad to be on the down side of raising my family, and may move out of Canada altogether once that responsibility is less of a challenge. I suspect I am not alone with this attitude as most of us engineers that have experienced working outside Canada in our craft, feel that on the global market, Canadian officers are better treated.

I’ve gathered all my strengths, but turns out, except for the Marine Branch and a few others, I’m fresh out sympathy for CEO’s and companies’ situation they have created for themselves. Now, its time to pay for the investment others have made, that you have abused for so long – after all – its “the free market”. Put that in your spreadsheet, because it seems that its the only way you’ll understand.

This article has 3 Comments

  1. Great write up Martin , to add that the BC Liberals under Gordon Campbell Government basically took the wind out of sails by cutting the Apprenticship programs for most RedSeal Trades in the 90”s . The thought level being we can hire abroad . Well that’s not happening . I apprenticed and worked for BCF for 35 years as a Marine Electrician both on Shore and on the Ships having learned my Trade from some truly talented tradesmen , most who came from abroad .the UK and other European countries that put Trades training on a equal level with post University degrees . On one note BCF has committed to Apprenticeship Training with some RedSeal trades , but attrition of tradespeople are happening at a faster rate than they can train new recruits . But they knew this back 20 years ago and failed to act . It’s hard to hire a TQ’d Electrician for example and expect them to be able to work on any ship without a few years of knowing how the ship and systems all work together .
    I had a great career with BCF and worked with some very talented Marine Engineers but Being retired for 6 years is truly a blessing

    Cheers Art

  2. Great write up. When i was in the Guard in the early nineties i had to quit to go to school, they would not give me time off (even unpaid) and they would not pay a dime for my training. I was in class with multiple BC Ferries guys who were getting paid to train. This can’t be pinned on one govt though, it’s obviously going on through multiple different administrations. The school system needs to change to reflect the importance and the quality of these trades and careers, BCIT is empty (especially on the engine side). I don’t think many high school kids even know about these jobs, they are all funneled towards academia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.