A big concern for inland operators is the high cost of labor and the difficulty filling open positions both on vessels and shoreside. This was on everyone’s mind at the American Waterways Operators spring meeting in May, according to AWO CEO and President Jennifer Carpenter.

With labor shortages across all sectors nationally, barge companies are competing with other industries that offer good salaries, signing bonuses and no time away from home.

Barging “is an essential sector with strong implications for national security, so we need to make sure we have a pipeline of people who want to come into this industry and make a career of it,” Carpenter said. “The short term challenge (for operators) is making sure we’ve got people to run the boats now and we have the people to grow the industry into the future. Those are big issues for our members.”

There is no immediate solution and companies must take a multifaceted approach to recruiting and employee retention, Carpenter said.

Many are being creative and proactive. Campbell Transportation has hired a professional recruiter to help attract and screen potential hires, and amped up its training program to emphasize jobs that lead to long-term, well-paying careers.

Golding Barge Line is venturing well beyond its base in Mississippi deep into rural areas in the Southeast to reach potential recruits, emphasizing long-term salary and career opportunities. All companies are making creative use of social media.

Labor difficulties aside, Carpenter said that while the current market rebound and high barge utilization rates are positive signs, it should be noted that the world is not yet free of the pandemic and there are many other factors affecting the industry’s performance.

“I qualify this because there are seasonal ups and downs, so getting out of pandemic-induced demand destruction does not mean that we’re going to be flying high 365 days a year. That’s not how it works,” she said.

“Different companies are differently situated depending on their debt load and their own financial profiles, there are seasonal fluctuations in the markets, and this year’s harvest is not yet here. Inflation is a real issue that affects fuel prices, wages and component parts, steel prices remain high, and now hurricane season is upon us,” Carpenter said. “But that shouldn’t overshadow the positive news that markets have begun to recover well.”

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.