State ferries facing recruitment problems

Young workers aren’t taking maritime jobs at the rate of past generations
By Marie Haaland | Sep 06, 2017
Photo by: Marie Haaland Captain Tim Koivu, a Washington State Ferry employee for 43 years, currently works on the Edmonds-Kingston route.

Captain Tim Koivu began working for Washington State Ferries (WSF) in an entry-level position 43 years ago, when he was studying to be an X-ray technician at Bellevue College.

“I got through with college and I decided I liked this better,” he said. “I started out at an entry level and worked my way up to captain. That was my dad’s one caveat, he said if you do this, I don’t want you to stay at an entry level.”

Koivu has been with the ferry system long enough to see a plethora of changes implemented and many challenges overcome. Currently, WSF is facing a problem because of the vast number of captains and other workers retiring, combined with the lack of new, young employees able to fill open positions.

In the next five to 10 years, about 40 percent of the agency’s vessel employees are eligible for retirement, as are about 88 percent of captains, including Koivu.

“I’m working on that [retirement plans] right now,” he said. “My wife’s already retired. We’re just researching when would be a good time for me to go. I really love this job; I know a lot of the regular commuters, I know the crew.”

Ian Sterling, a WSF public information officer, understands the issues that will be caused by the large number of expected retirements.

“The risk is that you’re not able to sail – you have to reduce service,” he said. “We are already at a point where we barely have enough people, especially during the summertime, just to keep the boats manned.

“Occasionally – it used to be much worse – but occasionally, you’ll see us cancel a sailing due to lack of crew. And that could be anything from someone got a flat tire on the way to work to somebody calls in sick and we aren’t able to get a replacement.”

Even though the maritime industry is suffering in their lack of new employees, WSF is working diligently to recruit. They have connected with different maritime academies and are taking interns, including students from the Seattle Maritime Academy and Crawford Nautical School, as well as from maritime academies in California.

“Do I think the boats won’t sail? No,” Sterling said. “I think we’ll be able to do it, but it is crunch time and it’s past time for a lot of the industry.”

Sterling said that the retirements will not cause a captain shortage, which is the perceived outcome.

“The media always covers this as the captain shortage, but really what it is, is you have a bunch of mates coming up,” he said. “As captains retire, the mates will move into their slot. What we end up with is a shortage of mates, because there aren’t enough able-bodied seamen to fill the mate slot and you don’t have enough entry-level people to start working their way up and getting their certifications.”

Even with mates filling the ranks, it will be hard for the industry to lose such a large number of people in a short amount of time.

“When people go, they take a lot of knowledge with them because they’ve been here for years and years. They may know something about the Puyallup [ferry boat] that nobody else knows,” Sterling said. “We have some vessels that are approaching 60 years old. There’s not a lot of people left who know how to work on them.”

WSF has 22 boats that cover 10 routes. These boats transported over 24 million passengers last year and, according to Sterling, they are reliable and on-time 99 percent of the time.

Sterling and Koivu both have their own ideas about why the maritime industry is facing a recruitment problem.

“Where it used to be a traditional career that you thought about, the lure of Microsoft and Amazon and Google, and the possibility of the money you can make there working on flashy new technology is pretty tempting for a lot of people,” Sterling said. “That said, I think the industry hasn’t done a great job of getting the word out about what a great career this is.”

One deterrent, Koivu said, may be that the job requires weekend work.

“I don’t know if the work ethic has shifted or what – I’m not saying people are lazy – but their priorities are different,” he said. “We work weekends, I’ve worked every holiday, you don’t get summers off, your vacation is by seniority. People know that coming in and aren’t willing to do it.”

Beyond that, the hours aren’t always good – especially for an entry-level employee with no seniority. Ferry employees often work early mornings and late nights.

“I think for a lot of kids, it just isn’t something that crosses their mind,” Sterling said. “You would never think, ‘I’m going to go work for ferries.’ It doesn’t even factor in, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. Where else can you be involved in a rescue or see whales?”

Despite working weekends and the lack of vacation time, Koivu still recommends his job. He said the benefits are great and there’s job security.

“I’ve talked to several people, several groups, and what I tell them is it’s a great place to work, if you like working on the water,” he said. “I tell them the positives are the training is very good, the room for advancement is as far as you want to go. You have the opportunity to move all the way to captain.”

And WSF continues to improve. Koivu has witnessed growth in professionalism, accountability and training in his time with the ferry system. There is now an orientation, lasting a little over two weeks, with classroom work and hands-on training with rescue boats. He’s also noticed more of a team atmosphere with the WSF system.

“A thing I’ve really noticed change for the better is the relationship between the vessel people, the dock people and management,” Koivu said, adding that there are plenty of opportunities, and of course, working on the water is a real benefit.

“I’ve got the best view in the world.”

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