A recent online exchange exquisitely sums up the maritime job market for many.
A job seeker with an AB special and 100-ton-with-radar endorsement has been looking for work since last fall. He's sent more than 300 resumes and spent a lot on licensing.
He receives a frank response to a request for advice: "There are 1,600-ton masters working AB jobs, just to have a paycheck coming in," one person noted, suggesting he take a job on any boat that moves and provides a bunk and food, just to get as much experience as possible.
That may be easier said than done. Vessels have been laid up, workers laid off and hiring is spotty, a far cry from a few years ago when "help wanted" signs hung everywhere. Salary has taken a back seat to employment, which comes as no surprise when times are tough.
The Gulf of Mexico deepwater drilling moratorium poses a threat to even more full-time jobs while providing a boost in temporary work. The impact goes beyond vessel operators and the Gulf. In late May, Portland, Ore., barge builder Gunderson Marine , for instance, cited the spill as one reason why it decided to cut back to a four-day workweek, a move that affects nearly 400 workers.
Still, the economy, in general, is the biggest drag on job prospects.
"We're not seeing any turnaround domestically," said Gregg Trunnell, director of the Pacific Maritime Institute , Seattle. "Every company I talked to said it has a stack of resumes on their desk with no place to put them."
G&H Towing Co., Galveston, Texas, has been fully staffed since the end of 2008, and the company doesn't envision any big change in the near future. "It's really turned completely upside down from where it was a few years ago," said Capt. Steve Huttman, director of marine operations. "In 2006 and 2007, we were beating the bushes to find people."
Now, he said, G&H has a waiting list. "It's outrageous. Sometimes we get 15 or 20 hits a day off our website, both in deck and engineering positions."
Harley Marine Services Inc., is flush with resumes as well, "unfortunately," said Rod Gullickson, vice president, marine operations, for the Seattle-based tug-and-barge company that operates on West and East coasts. "I guess with what's going on in the Gulf, we'll probably be seeing a lot more."
SOME STILL SEEK GOOD HELP
But not everyone is in a hiring freeze. Companies such as Vane Brothers Co., a growing Baltimore-based tug-and-barge operator, tries to plan its hiring to coincide with its tug construction delivery schedule.
"We're probably one of the few companies that hasn't laid anybody off," said Tom Lamm, manager of fleet development for Vane, which specializes in oil transport and bunkering.
In the past 18 months, the quality and number of applicants have risen, Lamm said. "You need a very intelligent, qualified and motivated person to operate these vessels."
Ingram Barge Co., Nashville, Tenn., has also avoided layoffs and even hired a few wheelhouse personnel this year.
"But we certainly aren't hiring as many as we used to," said Dave Brown, Ingram's vice president, human resources and safety. "One of the things we're really pleased about is an all-time low in entry-level turnover."
One positive Harley Marine has noticed lately is a slight pickup in container traffic, which should create more ship-assist work. "There is an increase in boxes, so that's a good sign," Gullickson said.
Alan Cote, president of the Inlandboatmen's Union, Seattle, offered a similar perspective. "We see more activity in the docks," he said. "Just the other day at the Port of Seattle, every single berth was filled, which hasn't happened in years." And some companies are hiring mates.
"Right now we have adequate people to fill the jobs," Cote said. But that likely won't last for long, he said, especially deckhands and engineers, as older mariners begin to retire.
Indeed, succession planning is critical, said Igor Loch, director of operations for Foss Maritime Co., Seattle.
"We always have a lot of applicants for positions," he said. "It's been slow, but with the recent downturn in the economy, there are a few more people available."
But the current backlog of resumes is temporary, and it hasn't solved the long-term problem of having enough workers for the future, Loch said. "The hawsepipe has pretty much dried up," he said. "We shouldn't get too comfortable."
Succession planning is still difficult. Academy grads "have the paperwork, and they're very well trained, but they don't really fill the gap immediately," Loch said. "You have to bring them in at an entry-level position regardless of what they come in with."
They can't be plugged right in to the wheelhouse of a workboat. "It's not something you can teach in schools," he said.
Rick Ely, owner of Compass Marine , a staffing agency in Mobile, Ala., said things seemed to be picking up before the oil spill.
A lot of vessels have gone to work since the spill, although day rates for 100-ton captains, for example, are $40 or $50 less than the $300 they were commanding a year ago. Ely's focus now is primarily the Gulf, because that's where the job orders are, and he's getting calls from captains and engineers from all over looking for work.
"A lot of captains couldn't find jobs as deckhands," Ely said.
"But long-term, what the spill has done to the Gulf, I don't know," he said. "We're all scared to death. This isn't the way we wanted things to pick up."
So what does the future hold for mariners? "It's kind of like going to Biloxi gambling," Ely said. "A lot of guys spent money to keep licenses current, and they're wondering if it's worth it."