As U.S. maritime operations move increasingly from oceangoing to domestic waterways, the Maritime Administration should do more to understand domestic workforce trends and support training for the inland industries, according to a new report by the General Accountability Office. 

While acknowledging the importance of the oceangoing merchant marine to the country’s national defense during wartime, the GAO said Marad must also address the needs of the domestic waterways industry. A balanced focus on both ocean and inland sectors, the report said, would make the maritime workforce better prepared for the future.

“For Marad to meet its mission to foster, promote and develop the entire U.S. merchant maritime industry, it is important that Marad study any potential problems that could arise in fulfilling U.S. national commerce objectives for both the oceangoing and domestic waterways, including whether there are sufficient number of trained mariners for all sectors of the maritime industry,” said the report, released Jan. 31.

At the request of Congress, the GAO report conducted a review of mariner training. Investigators spent six months interviewing maritime stakeholders from the inland and offshore industries, as well as officials from Marad, federal and state maritime academies, maritime labor unions and private and union training schools.

Marad primarily supports the oceangoing maritime industry and its training needs through subsidies for ships available for defense and to operate the federal and state maritime academies. Officials told GAO that they haven’t focused as much on the domestic commercial marine industry because they consider efforts to support military sealift requirements a higher priority given tight budgets.

Several towing companies said they were concerned about the lack of data and studies on the domestic industry at a time when waterways transport is growing and oceangoing is declining. Meanwhile, several maritime academies said they require more information about workforce trends and industry needs, particularly in the offshore and near coastal areas, in order to better adapt their curricula.

Studies show that inland system carries more than 60 percent of U.S. grain exports, about 22 percent of domestic petroleum products and 20 percent of coal used to generate electricity. By contrast the U.S.-flag fleet of 89 privately owned bluewater vessels now carries less than 2 percent of U.S. exports and imports.

Marad told GAO investigators that it plans to do an analysis of the waterways industry, but GAO is skeptical that this can get done because “officials have not yet devoted the staff resources necessary to complete this effort and did not establish a time frame,” the report said.

GAO recommended that as part of Marad’s efforts to develop a new, national maritime strategy that the agency include a review of maritime training that identifies “how the U.S. maritime training infrastructure can better meet the needs of the domestic waterways.”

Information from both the ocean and domestic industries is essential, GAO said, to make policies and decisions that will assure the future availability of mariners to serve all industry sectors.