Before Tim Davis left the Coast Guard after 28 years, he got his chief engineer’s license to keep his options open. The retired master chief machinery technician immediately landed a job and now works as a port engineer for Crowley Maritime at the twin ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach.

Davis knew the value of a license from talking to people in the industry. “A lot of people feel they can get out and get a job just with their background and experience. It shouldn’t be a big surprise to anybody.”

Unfortunately, it is. The transition from the Coast Guard, one of the five armed forces, to the commercial marine industry requires Coast Guard credentials. And not all military education, training and experience are recognized as meeting Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) and Coast Guard requirements.

“One senior industry leader described the problem as … ‘A boatswain’s mate in the Navy with 20 years of seagoing experience presently can’t get a job on a tug because he/she doesn’t have an AB ticket. Officers with years of sea time don’t even have third mate licenses,’ ” Richard Berkowitz, director of Pacific Coast operations for the Transportation Institute, said in a recent briefing paper prepared for the industry, which is pushing for change.

Mindful of the transition challenges, Crowley held two “Military to Mariner Career Day” sessions last year in Seattle and San Juan, Puerto Rico, and is planning another in Jacksonville, Fla., this year. The well-attended events that included vessel tours were designed to make people aware of what’s needed for the switch, said Aaron Gowin, tug dispatcher for Crowley in Seattle, who was an electrician’s mate in the Coast Guard.

“We looked at it more as an investment in people down the road,” rather than an actual job fair, he said. “For shoreside or underway positions, if you have that license, it sets you up to get in the door. You really open yourself up to a lot more opportunity.”

The marine industry has a lot of opportunity because of growth and retiring mariners, and veterans are an ample source of workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for Gulf War-era II vets (anyone on active duty since September 2001) was 7.3 percent in December 2013, down from 10.8 percent a year earlier. The December unemployment rate for the U.S. was 6.7 percent.  

 Veterans also are welcomed because they are a natural fit. “We look at the armed services as a good place to recruit. They instill a lot of things that we look at for in a good employee,” said Mark Knoy, CEO of American Commercial Lines. Veterans “are used to moving around a lot, and they are accustomed to a regimented schedule and workload. They make very good employees.”  

The Jeffersonville, Ind., company has a “military skills translator” on the career section of its website to help vets determine how their military experience fits into a marine career at ACL.

“Any member with sea time who leaves the service should automatically receive a sea service letter with his/her exit paperwork,” Berkowitz said. “Both the Navy and the Coast Guard should at a minimum encourage acquisition of equivalent civilian certifications … the Coast Guard should develop equivalency standards for marine engineers.”

His suggestions also reflect work done by the Merchant Marine Personnel Advisory Committee on the issue now being considered by Congress.

The Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee is developing legislation “to ease regulatory burdens in the maritime industry, including helping to facilitate the transition from U.S. military service to the merchant marine,” a spokesman said.

As for the qualification credits, “that matter is in the early stages of being looked into,” said Coast Guard spokesman Lisa Novak. “At this point, there isn't any specialized counseling the Coast Guard is providing for those who want to go into civilian mariner careers after leaving the Coast Guard.”

So veterans have to follow Davis’ lead and get the credentials on their own. — Dale K. DuPont 

Pamela Glass contributed to this report.