Maritime workforce worries in the Northwest

The Pacific Northwest has busy shipyards, cutting edge marine design and technology, some of the world’s richest fisheries. So why are its industry advocates worried for the future?

“Everybody knows that there’s a silver tsunami coming,” said Sarah Scherer, director and associate dean of the Seattle Maritime Academy, as Washington state maritime leaders met Friday for the annual King County Maritime Economic Forecast breakfast.

Scherer was talking about the impending retirement wave among the U.S. maritime workforce, as experienced mariners, shipbuilders and other skilled workers sail off. Replacing them is an enormous challenge all along the U.S. coast, with companies reporting problems with recruiting and retaining younger workers.

The problem is so deep and national that maritime educators created the Youth Maritime Collaborative, a network to bring young people at the middle and high school level in contact with the industry, and make them aware of the job opportunities.

Sarah Scherer, director of the Seattle Maritime Academy. Kirk Moore photo.

Sarah Scherer, director of the Seattle Maritime Academy. Kirk Moore photo.

“There are so many kids out there that don’t even know the maritime industry exists,” said Scherer. “We’re missing a partner, and that partner is industry.”

The Port of Seattle hosted more than 100 intern students in 2017 from maritime education programs in the city. Educators sought another 30 internships from private companies in the region, but placed only 10 students, Scherer told the audience.

The six-week summer internships are for high school students – working on shore, not at sea, for minimum wage – with the goal of having the students shadow workers to see how they do their jobs. Part of that is learning the culture of the workplace, Scherer said: “How do you show up on time? How do you dress? How do you speak?”

Even small companies can help, Scherer said: “If you can’t host an intern, please call us, and host a tour.”

“It’s important that we keep the workforce to operate these boats,” said Fred Felleman, a Port of Seattle commissioner. The port is committed to doubling its internships to 200 students in 2018, he said.

Shipyard operator Vigor Industrial work with the Seattle schools on introducing students to the trades, and the company has its own welding program, said Jill Mackie, Vigor’s senior vice president for external affairs. In that market, a graduate of a six-month training program may get hired for $50,000 with the opportunity to step up to $70,000 with additional certifications, she said.

“Young folks don’t understand the opportunities in maritime, opportunities that can give them a livable wage and allow them to raise a family in this area,” she said.

Nationally, the industry is hobbled in recruitment by the prolonged oil patch downturn. But that short-term trend is masking the aging of the workforce, “which is a problem in the long run,” said Mackie.

“The Gulf (of Mexico) is hurting right now. They’re doing everything they can to retain those workers,” said David Matsuda, who formerly led the federal Maritime Administration and now runs Matsuda & Associates Inc., a transportation consulting firm. “This is a pretty vicious cycle. It’s always boom or bust around here.”

Gulf shipbuilders have sought out new ferries and military contracts, and “the repair business is still going strong,” said Matsuda. It’s likely that Subchapter M, with its requirements for upgrading the towing and barge fleets, will give shipyards and their workers a boost over the next few years, he added.

The Northwest has the “strongest industrial base for maritime of anywhere in the United States,” said Gael Tarleton, Seattle’s Democratic member of the state House of Representatives. Recruiting young people to the industry can “teach people not just to do a job, but have a way of life,” she said.

Those efforts could get a boost in the state’s education funding plan, which now has more resources for career and technical training as part of basic education in middle and high school grades, said Tarleton. That shift was a reaction to downward trends in high school graduation rates.

“Kids were dropping out of high school at a really alarming rate,” said Tarleton. Exposing students to the possibility of a career around the water in the maritime trades can play a role in reversing that, “if we took kids back to a place where they could do work that they love,” she said.

About the author

Kirk Moore

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been a field editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for almost 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.


  1. Avatar

    It all depends on pay scale. It has to be competitive to attract new workers. The yachting industry is poorly paid on the whole. Why work on boats when houses pay more

  2. Avatar

    I appreciate the quote from my State of the Port speech at the Pacific Marine Expo.

    I wanna mention a couple of things I cut from my speach, that was still too long. While I was only quoted about the need to recrute folks to operate the boats, what gets electeds excited is the spectrum of skills that maritime employs – from design, build, outfit, operate, maintain and provision.

    Our problem is we keep talking to ourselves. I’ve been to plenty of christenings of mechanical marvels with only the trade press covering it (no offense workboat – we would have missed it altogether without you -I’ve subscribed for years).

    We need to find a way to build off the Trade press and into the the broader public’s attention. We no longer have Port reporters, but we have great stories to tell as well great things to point a news camera at.

    I ask the readers and publishers of Work Boat to help get the word out. The Port of Seattle is ready to help, but it’s your story we want to tell.

    My most basic responsibility (other than hiring an ED) is to preserve and acquire industrial lands so we can continue to serve you as a Port. But there’s plenty of pressure on our increasingly valuable property. The stories you tell will go along way to help us defend what we got because they stopped making it.

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    Anthony R Zylstra on

    Unfortunately income outlook is the largest factor. From experience, being a mechanic and rigger and trying to hire in good talent, unless you get them at the high school level, most look right past the industry to “new, modern tech jobs.” The efforts must start with trades programs at youth level with direct industry involvement from day 1.

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    Anthony R Zylstra on

    Also, the comment about 50k salary with potential to 70k will throw many right off the bat…consider Seattle where a 76k income is now considered borderline low income for a household.

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    Clark Dodge C/E on

    Interesting article and it is not something that just happened. I retired as the senior Staff Chief Engineer from Washington State Ferries and agree. I mentored many young people and students from many local schools and colleges who knew very little about the Maritime Industry and what we did. They were surprised at the pay scales and all the jobs related to the industry. Having been involved with the building of the Jumbo Mark II’s and dealing with the shipyards and workers over the years. It was very obvious over the years that all the good people were the “OLD GUYS,” as the young men and women were not there as the good unions no longer had Apprentices training positions. I remember talking to a C/E who was talking to me in Alaska said in Norway it took 8 years to become a C/E after you finished college. It shows that we need more training and better pay.

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    Except that very few welders/electricians are even going to cap out at 70k with 10 years experience and multiple certifications. Laborers, painters, riggers, etc.? Forget about even getting much past 50k annually. Even if you are making say, >$33/hourly, you’re not going to be getting 40 hours. You’ll have to deal with feast or famine conditions.

    People upstairs and of prior generations are also stuck in the pre-year 2000 mentality that 50-70K is good middle class living. 20 years of inflation have cut the reality of those figures in half. Considering that nobody will start at and few will attain those depreciated figures, with employment that trends on the low side of the full time definition, and how hard the work is (relatively), you shouldn’t be surprised if young people look elsewhere. Shipyards are also sparse, and have highly consolidated ownership. The owners understand their position, and push compensation down accordingly.

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