A new Government Accounting Office (GAO) report contains some interesting information about the Maritime Administration’s involvement in mariner training. It's worth a look.

GAO investigators spent about six months reviewing how the federal government supports mariner training and how this could be improved, given the shift in the industry away from big oceangoing vessels to a growing inland waterways fleet and the emerging offshore energy industry.

One of the main recommendations of the report was that the Maritime Administration, which traditionally concentrates on the ocean-going merchant marine due to its role in national defense, also broaden its reach to understand more about what makes the domestic industry tick.

The report offers some sobering statistics for the merchant marine: the U.S.-flag fleet of 89 privately owned oceangoing vessels primarily or exclusively engaged in foreign trade now carries less than 2 percent of U.S. exports and imports. Foreign-flag vessels move most U.S. international freight. By contrast, the inland waterways transport more than 60 percent of U.S. grain exports, about 22 percent of domestic petroleum products, and 20 percent of the coal used to generate electricity.

Meanwhile, Marad continues to focus its training support on the oceangoing industry, citing tight budgets and national defense reasons. This means the agency supports curricula at the state and federal maritime academies that emphasize mastery of skills on the big oceangoing vessels, although several schools now offer inland towing courses, mostly as electives.

Many in the maritime industry think it’s time to re-evaluate this picture. The GAO report cites officials at one domestic company that said academy graduates aren’t well prepared for inland work. The company said it required recent academy graduates to go through another 13 months of required training and on-the-job experience. Officials from an offshore service company said they didn’t think the academies have sufficient coursework focused on offshore operations.

And the subject was brought up at Marad’s recent symposium in Washington that was organized to draft a new, national maritime strategy. GAO suggested that given new trends in the industry, Marad should include the training and workforce needs of both the oceangoing and domestic industries as part of this strategy, and determine how the current training infrastructure can better serve the domestic industry.

Some inland industry leaders at the symposium called for what Michael Roberts, senior VP and general counsel at Crowley Maritime, referred to as “a comprehensive review and strategy update” of the nation’s maritime education programs, citing increasing demands for skilled mariners, particularly in the offshore energy development industry, and increasing technical, environmental and safety standards.

“Asking for a strategic focus on the work of state and federal maritime academies is not meant to imply they are falling short,” Roberts told me in an email follow-up to his symposium presentation. “Rather, it recognizes both the emerging need for more highly skilled mariners than most people would have expected the last time such a review was carried out and the key role these institutions play in training the next generation of mariners.”


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.