A Personnel Shortage? Really?

A personnel shortage? Really?

Authored by: Don Sutherland

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I came across this article in the Marine News late last year, shortly after I had published on the website my article which dealt with the very same topic. Over the last few years I have sense a common thread of displeasure from seafarers, no matter where they are from. It is nonetheless interesting to read of a US perspective on the issues affecting our profession.


"The [New York School of Seamanship], on [Staten] island’s north shore, home to the most vital remnant of New York’s once-mighty shipping industry, is the first school for sailors to open in the city for many years. It reflects the reality that while jobs for merchant mariners around New York City are not increasing, those that remain are subject to more and more regulations and licensing requirements."

The New York Times, August 22, 2006


The Times, whose last foray into the Kill Van Kull yielded an article titled "Tugboat Alley" one year and one day before the above was published, is this time almost correct. Whereas errors of fact and interpretation the previous time took considerable space to address, this time nobody disputes that mariners "are subject to more and more regulations and licensing requirements."

Nor would we dispute that the jobs around New York are not increasing. But also, we can wonder why they're not increasing. Did the increase in regulations have something to do with the decrease in applicants?

If the jobs are not increasing, it's certainly not because the industry is no longer "mighty." As mentioned throughout the trade magazines, everybody's working and if anything, more boats are needed. Plenty of owners say that if they had more boats, they'd be even busier.

So why don't they get more boats? Some of the companies tell us they can't find the crews. If the jobs are not increasing, it's not for lack of demand. It's for lack of qualified people to fill the demand. According to testimony by the American Waterways Operators (AWO) for the House of Representatives in the early spring of 2006, that demand "is reaching crisis proportions." How did The Times, an authority on things Congressional, miss it?

All the tugboat companies are advertising for personnel. The internet is buzzing with it. Companies large and small feel the pinch. So what dissuades droves of folks from lining-up for the employment opportunities in the maritime trade?

Let us count the ways.



For starters, there's the old lore. "The Gestapo of the harbor!" That's what one skipper described, a couple years ago. "Where else in America can a law-enforcement agency stop you in the middle of doing your job, for no reason, while a 19-year-old points a 9mm at you, and push you around until they're done with you?"

That same skipper, a couple years later, acknowledges that this much of it has improved. "I don't hear about those kinds of boardings, guns drawn, so much," he reports. Still, memories die hard. "We're treated like criminals," he said back then. It was, he said, a matter of "their Mekong Delta attitude." As he put it. "They acted like I had Osama Bin Laden hidden in the forepeak." It was, he seemed to think, a problem of attitude.

The speaker was representative of a lot of harbor voices, a gent who grew up in the towing business, and achieved a respectable prominence. He is middle-aged, but nowhere near the customary point of retirement. "I'm giving it another couple years," he'd said, "then I'm getting out before this eats me up."

Even if they no longer recur, tales of this sort live on. So let's say you're deciding between two jobs, truckdriver or boatman. The lore about one cites speeding tickets. The lore about the other cites Glocks. Which do you choose?



Without actual statistics, we don't know whether more tugboats than eighteen-wheelers are pulled-over for inspection per unit of measurement, but it doesn't matter. Some people feel harassed. And actions are based on feelings, not statistics. And in the merchant marine, people aren't in a position where they have to feel harassed.

Most people who work on tugboats are able to work on other things too, such as building construction or automotive repair, perhaps even on trucks themselves. According to The New York Times in February 2006, trucking companies have been holding job fairs all over the east, in hopes of reversing a 10,000-driver shortfall in anticipated need.

What if 10,000 tugboatmen took the driving course (about $3k) and mastered the art of keeping awake? That could make the personnel shortage around tugboats even sharper than it appears to be now. To put it in perspective, Charlie Chellimi, past president of local 333, says the current union membership in New York is around 2500. So even if all the tugboaters got disgusted and quit, there still wouldn't be enough truck drivers. Sounds like they've got what you call a seller's market.

Zealous sea marshals weren't the only thing making crews feel like criminals. Incarcerated people are deprived of many things, especially their perceptual senses. They get nothing to look at, or little they want to. That is a feeling sometimes shared by crews who, for whatever reason, are delayed at some terminal. They're forbidden to leave the boat. Or, more precisely, they're forbidden to pass through the terminal to buy a newspaper or provisions. The terminal won't permit it. Security risk. So they stare at one another until their sentence has been served.

We asked many crewmembers what they thought of all this, and their composite comes out something like: "I broke my butt renewing my license, it cost me a lot of money, it took forever, but my background proved to be clean, I'm completely checked-out, and they won't let me off the boat. I'm good enough for the Coast Guard, but not for the terminal?"

Of course, some boatmen really are criminals, and go to jail for it. Their offense? They spilled oil. That has got to give a fellow pause, before getting  involved with something that contains as much oil as a tugboat. More than one skipper has felt it prudent to put all his worldly goods in his wife's name, as a hedge against the absurd penalties imposed as fines (and then, naturally, hoped the marriage continues happily ever after).

Laws are sometimes flexible, and in the right hands can be stretched like taffy. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1914? Who would think a World War I vintage statute written to protect egrets from the hat industry could send hard-working 21st-century mariners to the slam? Thanks to the creative legal mind, the prospect is substantial enough.

What is migratory any more? According to Yigal Gelb, program director the New York City Audobon Society, so-called Canadian geese have quit migrating, and have become "an invasive species." So is the "migratory" law still applicable?  Is it safe to come out now?

Prosecution of mariners has proceeded under laws besides the aforementioned, but that's the most stunning from the standpoint of thinking that somebody may be out to getcha. According to the Innocence Project, a legal clinic and criminal justice resource center at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, the largest number of falsely convicted prisoners were convicted falsely by overzealous prosecutors who in some form violated due process. Wouldn't it be funny if we got all the serial-killers off the streets by putting them in office?

This is not to say that anything short of the highest ethics are upheld by the vast majority of the legal profession. It's just that anyone contemplating a maritime career has to remind himself of that.



New rules and regulations are not the only gripe voiced commonly around the harbor. Mr. Chellimi, for example, sees part of the personnel situation originating in the unforgotten work action of the late 1980s, described both as a strike and as a lockout.

"After that," said Mr. Chellimi, "the companies cut the wages and benefits to the bare bones. People could make more money in service industries like McDonald's, or service stations. People didn't come into the industry for five or six years, because the wages weren't the best. If people had come in then, they'd be licensed now and we wouldn't have the shortage there is today."

There are forces outside the industry too, broad social ones. The nation's gone white-collar, or thinks it has. It seems to love its new "service-based economy," and looks askance at the industrial age and its "smokestack industries." What has a more prominent smokestack than a tugboat?

A lot of folks may still think a tugboater looks like Wallace Beery (an actor who played in "Tugboat Annie") and smell as described. Joe Sixpack is gone, of course, replaced by the maritime pro. Regulations enacted around 1990 have insisted. But this kind of lore, too, dies hard.

It's never been an easy business, it's never been that safe. Boats catch fire, get slammed by storms, for all sorts of reasons they sink. And two-weeks-on gets mixed reviews as regards family life. And maybe potential new mariners are reading, in The New York Times, that there are no jobs, anyway.

Even when there are jobs, career advancement can go slowly. There's a lot you must know to succeed on the deck, a lot more to succeed in the house. "The path from entry level to being fully licensed as a master of a vessel," said Dale Seuse, chairman of the AWO during July's testimony before the House Subcommittee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, chaired by U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ),  "while rewarding, can be long and demanding. Not everyone finds himself or herself suited to a maritime career."



The boatman took all this stuff because that's what he was -- a boatman. His love for his boats, enriching though it is, and his love for a life on the water, could be his Achilles Heel. In exchange for those things he seems to accept the perils and the exhaustion and the distorted views by the world at large. Ask him, and he'll probably say it's something in his blood.

Up to a point. If he loses the love, what keeps him aboard?

"The Coast Guard licensing process," Capt. Sause told the Congressmen, "can and does exacerbate a situation that is reaching crisis proportions. The lengthy delays, bureaucratic quagmires, and enormous backlogs at the Coast Guard Regional Examination Centers ... are the difference between working and not working, operating a vessel or tying it up. When I talk to AWO members around the country about this issue, I'm struck by the emotional intensity of their response. People are frustrated. They're angry. They feel devalued."

And if you have two or three different licenses, as plenty of mariners do, it can be cause to feel doubly or triply angry and devalued. It's hard to stay in love if you feel devalued. "Why can't we establish a simple, efficient system for processing the documents that mariners require to do their work? In many parts of the country, delays in the processing of mariner credentials have gotten so bad that the Coast Guard routinely advises mariners to submit an application for renewal a full year before their license expires!" And from that comes license creep. "The system is broken," said Capt. Sause. "A fix is desperately needed, and long overdue."



The maritime industry is considered a line of defense, for which it has proved itself so able. Who evacuated all those people in September '01, from a lower Manhattan that lacked the sense to place bollards on its shore?

Those same gents and their shipmates take lifesaving courses, firefighting courses. Each year brings dozens of reports about tugs called away to fight other peoples' fires. The crews are efficient and heroic and were they not, some very ugly consequences would have ensued. So some in the business wonder how come there are forces trying to make their jobs harder?

They say things get harder if getting credentials requires a face-to-face meeting, in one of just 17 RECs nationwide. And word originally got around that new plans would proceed without public comment. That much of it, it seems clear, has changed. But at first, for some, it seemed to reprise lore from the days of yore, about the nature of authoritarianism.

Testimony before a House Subcommittee could be considered a component of public comment, and the Coast Guard seems to be listening. They're going over the material, and we look forward to their findings.

The authorities maintain the importance of face-to-face contact such as the RECs provide, and of the TWIC issued by the TSA. Although the TWIC itself has been debated on various grounds, it's seen as an avenue toward streamlined procedures by the Coast Guard. The fact that the card readers don't work is, everyone hopes, a temporary glitch that won't be allowed to add to the burdens of the people required to have it. Were the culpability reversed -- if the glitch had been committed by the maritime industry instead of its regulating authorities -- one intuits that the penalties imposed would have been severe.

"There will be many more TSA enrolment centers,"  said the Coast Guard's Capt. Ernest J. Fink, Director of the National Maritime Center, "something in the range of 130 or so. I think it'll be a lot easier for the mariner to find a TSA enrolment center than a REC." The RECs in the future, Capt. Fink told us, would operate more as a "storefront," and streamlined procedures would come into place, including online submission of applications and payments of fees.

"There will be a website where they can go in and find out the status of their application," said Capt. Fink. "Doing it on the internet will cut down on phone calls, freeing people to work on the applications." Among further steps to relieve logjams would be measures such as training Coast Guard Auxiliary and Reserve personnel to do the requisite fingerprinting.

The future of credentialing is still a work in progress, but the dialog on the topic seems to have begun.



Mention a personnel shortage, and some people mention a threat to the Jones Act, which covers a number of topics besides employment, and which is subject to antagonism from various sources (e.g. an op-ed piece published in The New York Times of January 2, 2007 described it as "an antiquated law" that is "a major factor in the decline of American shipping"). If it's "antiquated," why not throw out the whole thing, lock, stock, and pension plan?

Today's personnel shortage forms the Catch-22 for the employment provisions of the Jones Act -- for if there aren't enough Americans to man our vessels, what is the point of protecting American jobs? Anyone wishing to undermine provisions of this "antiquated law" need only point to the H-2B "guest worker" program under which southern shipyards, depopulated by the hurricanes of 2005, are bringing-in workers from Mexico, Latin America, and even India. Some employers in that region already assert that the Third World is the inevitable source of shipyard personnel. If shipyards, why not the ships built there?

Between the outsourcing of jobs to other countries, the "insourcing" of labor from other countries, and the rhetorical fantasies put forth by newspaper writers, it would be easy to entertain conspiracy theories regarding the future of American labor. Legislation that makes felons of guys on the job does not quell such suspicions, nor does the creation of impossible regulations in the name of National Security.

But inside and outside the industry, everyone seems to hope -- and optimistically expect -- that the dialog with the authorities will arrive at a thoughtful, thought-out balance between the needs of security during wartime, and the requirements of civilians doing private-sector jobs.



From our perspective, a personnel shortage is bad enough for today's harbor fleets, but what about tomorrow's? The way some discussions are headed, the future holds a demand for tugboats and their services even greater than the present. Who'll be on tap to run them?

The issue has been raised in realms far outside the industry. Organizations as land-based and design-oriented as the Municipal Art Society, an influential New York cultural organization focused on quality-of-life issues, has formally identified waterborne transport as a desirable alternative to an increase of trucks bringing goods into the city. What if those 10,000 truck drivers are hired?

The Society sees the waterways as a means to reduce congestion, wear and tear on the roadways and streets, asthma and cancer. They've found out that one container barge could replace 200 tractor-trailers in local and regional deliveries, a point to ponder for all quality-of-life fans.

Meanwhile, not long ago, New York congressman Jerrold Nadler proposed a cross-harbor rail tunnel, with the same objectives of reducing congestion and pollution, and increasing security. In addition, if freight came by rail through a new tunnel from near Jersey City to somewhere in Queens, the congressman advised, it would be a great backup if something happened to the one bridge or two tunnels now linking the New Jersey container ports with points east.

The New York Economic Development Corporation (EDC) drafted the Environmental Impact Statement, examining various solutions for the foregoing issues. It declared Congressman Nadler's Tunnel to be the Number One solution, naming expanded tug/barge transport the second choice out of three. Mayor Bloomberg nixed the tunnel because a huge railroad yard would diminish the quality of life for citizens of Queens. With that decision, Choice Number Two automatically became Number One.

It looks like everyone who's thinking about the Grand Scheme wants there to be more tugboats. Hence they want more tugboat crews. It's not clear how far the EDC has thought this through, nor even the industry itself.

But evidently, The Times hasn't given it much thought at all.


First published in MarineNews magazine, September 2006. Updated by the author January 2007, posted by permission. Don passed away from cancer shortly after this article was written, his passion for the marine industry is missed.


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