Grey hair and brownwater

There is no longer a mariner shortage in the brownwater industry. Operators say it is no longer a struggle to attract the young to work on their boats. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned.

While crewing a boat is no longer an immediate problem, the graying in the wheelhouse has officials concerned about the future.

That’s what AWO chief Tom Allegretti told Pam Glass for this month’s cover story (see page 34). He said the question has shifted from whether a company could man its boats now to how it would do so in the future. “How are we going to man our boats in the future with an aging wheelhouse?” Allegretti asked.

The average age of maritime workers is 55 and there is a noticeable dearth in the 32-to-42 age range. There’s a high turnover in entry level positions that creates a gap when older mariners retire. Also, the technical demands on mariners today are much higher than they were a few years ago. Just take a look at the tugs, OSVs and other equipment that is being built. They are much more sophisticated today, and this requires well-qualified personnel to operate these vessels.

But the industry hasn’t been simply waiting for workers to come to it. It has been proactive and found some success. Operators offer training programs for new recruits and those that seek a clear path to the wheelhouse. Companies also offer tuition assistance and have been recruiting at high schools and maritime academies, and attending veterans job fairs.

Companies have also made it more attractive to work on the water. In the last decade or so salaries and benefits packages have improved and so have the boats. Tugs and towboats are now much more comfortable and technologically advanced.

Walter Blessey says his barge company once struggled to attract young people, but that has improved. One reason, he speculated, is the better pay. Captains that once made $60,000 or so can now make well over $100,000.

Still, the challenge is in the long term. There has to be recognition that there are great career opportunities in brownwater.

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