Trying to understand where our US Merchant Marine is heading is, nearly impossible. What is obvious is that as active maritime tonnage continues to collapse, solutions to create a strong maritime work force become more and more difficult.
It appears that most maritime graduates and license holders, will find great difficulty making a career at sea. In my opinion going ashore after a few years sea experience is best option for these individuals as higher ranking positions continue to get tougher and tougher to find. Relying on the politicians in our government to come together and provide funding to successfully build this industry back is as futile as the cadet looking for the golden rivet. Too many powerful corporate interests have control over our government and these same companies and special interest groups use every opportunity to try and break down the Jones Act.
Look at the lobbying the largest maritime unions have done for 30, 40 plus years. Nothing can really be noted as a success industry wide, as the unions compete now against each other for the last remaining slices of the maritime pie. Don’t get me wrong, we need unions still, because if and when our fleet comes back, we need the strength that collective bargaining brings to maintain the rights of earning a decent wage.
Look at the change in work ethics, not just in the maritime industry but across America. There is a shortage of skilled trades people and plant operators around the country. Most of the younger generation want nothing to do with working with their hands. There has been a cultural change going on now for several generations where even washing a car, changing a bicycle tire or mowing a lawn, just isn’t done by many anymore. Those that sail as licensed engineering officers and like their careers, are becoming more and more a dying breed.
A look at our union publications you can see for yourself, our American engineers are some of the hardest working men and women on the seas, typically filthy, covered with oil, yet very proud of the work they are doing with a reduced crew and the lack of additional support. Is this really an officer or supervisor’s life? These young men and women spent four years plus meeting some of the toughest educational and regulatory requirements only to work on the some of the oldest vessels sailing the seas today. If you ever been on a foreign flag vessel or cruise ship you would see the heavy reliance on the unlicensed crew to perform the majority of work aboard, this raises the question, should there be more specific skill sets for the crew? Would this help?
So how can we change this around? What are leaders who believe in a strong merchant marine thinking? Protecting the Jones Act is important but solutions to make us more competitive are also needed. Are there any international business models we could compare? What are other European countries doing? There are a lot of tough questions and no clear answers.
One thing though, I am proud of our American Maritime community. We gave up a lot, to careers, that many ashore can not begin to comprehend. The requirements and sacrifices required to do the job we've done are indeed remarkable.
Fair winds and following seas