Burdensome regulations, declining budgets and aging training ships are making it harder for state maritime academies to offer top-notch training for the next generation of merchant marine officers, a group of academy presidents recently told Congress.
The six academies located in Massachusetts, Maine, New York, California, Texas and Michigan face ever-increasing regulations regarding mariner licensing and training and a pressing need to replace old training vessels, whose average age is 35 years. Meanwhile, federal and state budgets for maritime schools remain stagnant or in decline.
“Reduced funding from the states and the federal government simultaneously will hamper our ability to provide a quality education and fulfill ever-increasing federal requirements for our students to meet domestic and international merchant mariner credentialing requirements,” Rear Adm. Richard G. Gurnon, president, Massachusetts Maritime Academy, told the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee hearing on Sept. 10.
State academies graduate about 650 students a year, which equates to 70 percent of the newly licensed deck and engineering officers in the U.S. each year. “This number is significant in terms of ensuring a sufficient pool of merchant mariners in the event of a national emergency and providing highly trained and qualified individuals to companies operating in all segments of the maritime industry,” Gurnon said. “But the academies now find themselves facing a number of challenges, despite our excellent records in enrollment and job placement, which threaten our future success.”
Speaking on behalf of the six academies, Gurnon said the schools continue to enjoy full enrollment, and demand remains strong for well-trained personnel who hold the appropriate domestic and international credentials issued by the Coast Guard. “We are also witnessing a shift in demand for our graduates to serve on domestic inland, coastal and offshore vessels,” he said.
But since the 1990s, when the International Convention and Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) code was first implemented, academies have endured an increased regulatory burden, which in many cases is “unnecessary and results in unfunded mandates and higher costs for the academies,” the admiral said.
The schools lost much of their flexibility to train students. Significant changes in their curricula were required, as each student had to undergo numerous practical assessments or demonstrations of skill. This placed more demands on faculty and required time-consuming recordkeeping. “These added requirements do little to improve safety, while driving many mariners out of the profession because they no longer wish to invest so much energy, time and costs to attain or retain their qualifications,” he said.
The age and performance of training vessels, which provide the required sea time for unlimited tonnage and horsepower credentials, is another urgent issue. The average age is 35 years, but many are much older. The EmpireState(pictured above), the vessel serving SUNY Maritime in New York, is now over 51 years old. It must be replaced by 2019, as it was designed as break bulk cargo ship and no longer meets various international environmental standards.
In the past, replacing vessels has been done haphazardly, without a long-term capitalization plan that would bring down procurement and maintenance costs, he said. Many of the training ships have been converted from the National Defense Force or from elsewhere, but these vessels usually have only a 20-25 year lifespan, compared to 40 years for a newbuild.
Gurnon advocates constructing a new, multi-purpose class of training ships for the state school that would provide shipyard jobs and state-of-the-art training for mariners. These ships would also provide disaster relief, humanitarian assistance and logistics support for national defense. There would also be savings in maintenance and management.
Costs could be shared between the federal government and the academies, he said, with Uncle Sam paying for the hull, machinery and navigational systems and the academies — using a mix of funds from the states, alumni and private donors — paying for specialized classrooms, berthing areas, labs and simulators.
If training ships are not replaced, Gurnon said academies would be forced to send cadets out on commercial vessels to obtain required sea time.
“This would put a significant strain on all the academies, including the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, due to the limited number of available commercial vessels,” he said. “Shortages of available licensed mariners would be realized at all credential levels, and the future availability of licensed mariners in the event of a national emergency would be severely impacted.”