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.

Contributing 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 an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 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.