While having lunch the other day with a few friends, we were talking about the aging population of doctors in the U.S., and how there will be a real crunch when this older crop of doctors retires over the next few years. This was a topic of concern for two of my friends, one who has just gone back to nursing school, and the other who is an emergency room doctor.
I navigated the subject toward the maritime industry, mentioning that this will be the case with the nation’s mariners as well. The average age in the industry is about 55, and when this generation retires they will take with them years of experience and knowledge that is not being readily replaced with younger recruits. The recession helped ease the manpower shortage a bit, but the overall problem of an aging workforce remains.
My friends were really intrigued to learn more about the industry as I explained the importance of ports, the inland waterways and the bluewater container trade to the nation’s economy. I mentioned how the ingredients for the Thai food we were eating probably came by ship. As did the table we were eating on, the cars we drove to the restaurant, the coal used to provide the restaurant’s electricity, and much of the medical equipment used in my girlfriend’s hospital emergency room.
They asked: “But why don’t we hear more about this?”
“If shipping is so important, why don’t we know more about these connections?”
I was at a bit of a loss to explain. I mumbled a bit about how this is a small industry dwarfed by the other big transport modes such as rail and highway, and lacks the people and resources to promote itself nationally. It’s also an “invisible” industry to most, as not everyone sees rivers, barges and ships everyday as they do trains and trucks.
I left the lunch satisfied, not just with the delicious Thai food but that I helped enlighten a few well-educated women about the importance of the nation’s waterways. But this is just a drop in the bucket. There are so many more people that need to be educated about the marine industry, especially in the Washington, D.C., area where I live.
The inland waterways industry has made some good progress with some targeted TV and radio campaigns, but this conversation was a reminder of how much more still needs to be done.