As WorkBoat has reported, the graying of the fleet is not as dire as it once was. But although the industry is having an easier time attracting young workers, the future is still a big concern for fleet owners, whose workers are on average 55 years old.

To find out what attracts new workers to the profession, I talked to Maine Maritime Academy’s Career Service Director Tim Leach. Leach has been with the school for more than three decades and helped to found its tug and barge program.

Maine Maritime Academy tug Pentagoet. 

He says many of the academy's students come from the three Fs: fishing, farming and forestry. “Those are hard, hard ways to make a living, and they’re practical and so they grow up doing practical stuff including repairing machinery. They’re very used to using their hands. They don’t recognize the fact that they’re using their brains as well.”

This hands-on approach to learning offered by MMA and maritime schools is another attraction for kids who don’t necessarily fit the typical student mode. They are often the first in their families to attend college: 36% of MMA’s 2013 class were first-generation college students.

“Most of them are really bright, but they don’t see themselves as a typical college student because of their background,” says Leach. “Because we couple it to that practical experience I think it takes a little bit of that initial fear out.”

Though these students might be breaking new ground, they don’t want to leave their roots behind. Leach says the industry is attractive for those with rural backgrounds because they can keep living out in the country instead of having to move to the city to make a living.

In fact, home life has also become more important for young workers. Leach says he’s seen blue water rotations become shorter. They used to be about 120 days at sea with 30 to 60 days at home. Now it’s become equal time at home and at sea.

“I see more and more young people who are interested in quality of life,” he says. “The month on, month off really is the rotation that they’re looking for right now.”

That urge to stay closer to home is also an attraction for the brownwater industry. The school acquired the tug Pentagoet in 1984 to provide hands on tug and barge training.

While talking to Leach, I realized that maritime academies need to be constantly aware of what skills are in demand in the real world. One of the biggest reasons students come to them after all is the near guarantee of a job using their practical skills when they graduate (the school promises that 90% of its students find a job within 90 days of graduation). Leach explains that the tug and barge program was started after the Jones Act began moving more trade in that direction in the 1980s. The school also has an offshore technology program to address the need for offshore drilling workers. 

So what’s next for the industry? Not surprisingly, sustainability is big on the list. The school has begun construction on a new Marine Engine Testing and Emissions Laboratory (METEL). Funded by a $1.4 million grant from the DOT’s University Transportation Center, it will test low-emission fuels for the industry.

“We have to have our ear to the track for those trends,” says Leach. “Right now a large percentage are interesting in offshore drilling and offshore supply because of good rotations and good living, and they can stay in state of Maine.”