That Sinking Feeling
Domestic mariner shortages to rise in the short term, especially in the face of an improving economy and a federal SIP program that remains in turmoil. It might not have to be that way.
It is supposed to be a happy time at the nation’s six state maritime academies. Starched dress whites, highly polished shoes and high-pressure hats will be the uniform-of-the-day at graduation ceremonies stretching from Buzzard’s Bay to the Bronx, the Great Lakes and all the way to the left coast, too. And, for those about to receive diplomas, marine licenses and/or officer’s commissions in the various armed services, it probably is. Nevertheless, the mood has to be markedly less upbeat inside the beltway where U.S. Maritime Administration officials must be scratching their heads as to what to do about the declining licensing rates for academy graduates. Or, maybe they are not.
Despite their collective best efforts, the nation’s merchant marine officer training machine is not keeping pace with the demand for sufficient numbers of competent licensed personnel. There are a lot of reasons for that metric – some of that emanates from the very nature of the times that we live in – but it is also likely that MARAD could be doing more, as well. And, assuming the status quo here in this country does not change very much in the near term, pressure coming from the international community could bring the entire system tumbling down. It’s not hard to see why:
- Gloomy Statistics Tell Only Half the Story
Graduation and mariner licensing data for the class of 2009 is now available and the numbers are anything but encouraging. Aside from the 100 percent licensing (as required by regulations) at Kings Point, the percentage of maritime academy graduates who opt to take the “license” track continues to fall. According to the spreadsheets, the cumulative licensing rate for state maritime academy graduates has fallen to just 57 percent for 2009, from 59 percent in 2008 and again down from 61 percent in 2007. The trend – although getting a short reprieve from the dismal shipping economy for the past 18 months – literally flies in the face of a critical worldwide shortage of qualified mariners.
There’s more. A minor increase in the number of total maritime academy graduates produced just 29 more licenses than were recorded in 2008. The 2010 statistics are unofficial, but preliminary numbers obtained from the show little change in the trend. With only two state maritime academies boasting 100 percent licensing for their graduates (comprising a mere 10 percent of the totals), MARAD had hoped to improve on those numbers, partly by doubling Student Incentive Payments (SIP) to qualifying cadets. That financial aid comes with caveats, however. Students in the SIP Program receive quarterly financial subsistence for a maximum of 4 years. In exchange for this, SIP students incur a national service obligation. The Maritime Service compliance System (MSCS) track students participating in the SIP Program, who must then fulfill their national service obligation.
Unfortunately, the SIP program has been in turmoil because the federal government changed the amount that was to be awarded to each recipient, but the amount allotted for the program didn’t change. In the Fall of 2009, the data for total number of SIP cadets at the state schools was just 143, with Merchant Marine Reserve cadets more than doubling (312) that number. On Tuesday, Rear Admiral Richard Gurnon, President of the , told MarPro that as many as 63 cadets – most of those in the program already – were waiting for an opportunity to participate in the SIP program. Gurnon says that the key to increasing numbers in the license track programs hinges, in part, on increasing the availability of SIP to deserving cadets but also on changing how and when that money is made available.
- Beyond the Money
In 1980, Mass. Maritime produced 175 licensed graduates with a total class representing just 75 percent of today’s numbers. In 2009, and despite the increased enrollment, only 122 cadets chose to take the license exams. The migration of curriculum at many of the maritime academies happened gradually over the years, partly as a way to survive in an era when ship billets were scarce and graduates found it increasingly difficult to make a living at sea. As the need for mariners once again became more robust, the corresponding migration back into license programs has not kept pace. There are a lot of reasons for that metric and not all of them involve money.
Today, virtually every cadet who opts for a license and wants to go to sea in one capacity or another can find a job. But, not everyone wants to go to sea anymore. Instead, shoreside programs such as stationary powerplant operations and industrial safety/environmental careers are gaining increasing popularity. Indeed, the safety and environmental graduates are finding themselves in particularly high demand at this moment, especially with the ongoing oil spill crisis in the Gulf.
More than one year ago, then MARAD Chief Sean Connaughton said, “The job market for merchant marine officers remains robust. There is a growing, worldwide demand for fully-trained merchant marine officers and licensed mariners.” The dismal world economy, highlighted amply by the crash of the containership market (laying up as much as 13 percent of the world’s boxships), put a dent in those claims. As shipping improves – and it will – Connaughton’s remarks will again ring true.
- The Easy Way Out?
Exactly 30 years ago, cadets at the had very little to think about beyond whether they intended to go “deck” or “engine.” Today, that’s no longer the case. Students can choose from as many as six majors, some of which allow them to opt out of all but one of four training cruises, not only saving the $3,300 in costs associated with that trip, but also going out to secure well-paying internships ashore. A new generation of kids, accustomed to having it “their way” from a nice car to drive and a style of living that past generations of cadets can barely imagine, are choosing not to spend long periods of their college days away from home in a training regimen that will eventually lead them to a nomadic life of 75 days (or more) at sea before earning any time off.
The hardship of going to sea has always been there. Notwithstanding the boasts of starting salaries of $75,000+ for Third Mates and Engineers, the financial lure of the ships is also fading rapidly. That $75,000 doesn’t come close to buying what similar work, paying $50,000 in 1980, allowed. Shoreside positions are now reportedly matching and eclipsing these numbers. And then, there is the increasingly rigorous nature of the path to getting that marine license to contend with.
The pressures of new STCW training requirements are well known in the maritime community, but there is also another factor affecting the recruitment of cadets into the license track programs. In a conversation with RADM Gurnon just this week, he reported that the passage rate of license exams at Mass. Maritime – in fact at all the schools – had been trending down for some time. In fact, only 74 percent of those that took the exams this year passed on the first sitting, down from an 82 percent success rate the year before.
Interestingly, it wasn’t too long ago that the U.S. Coast Guard had been chided for making the exams too easy and many old-timers lamented the elimination of the essay portion of the testing. Gurnon reported that, more and more, cadets were unwilling to subject themselves to the embarrassment of failing the exams in what he characterized as “a very public setting,” especially when there are easier routes to graduation that don’t involve four training cruises sleeping in close proximity to 700 other cadets. Also according to Gurnon, the Coast Guard’s method of random delivery of the examination questions has gotten (a.) much more sophisticated and (b.) far greater in breadth. It is, apparently, no longer a “slam dunk.”
- STWC, and Sea Time; Oh My…
For Gurnon and his colleagues at the other five state academies, it would be nice if the obstacles described above were the only things that they collectively have to deal with. It turns out that the United Nations and its maritime arm, the International Maritime Organization () will also have something to say about how, when and how long it will take to educate future American mariners. And, it will be through the global protocol of the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) and its various many amendments that they will apparently try to apply that pressure.
Already, it is nearly impossible to cram a busy training schedule into a traditional, four-year college experience. Mass. Maritime, for example, operates for about 11 months per year, with the annual training cruise eating up about two months of that time. But, the wants American schools to come into compliance with International standards that require one year of sea time, instead of the six months that the cadet typically experiences. The change, if implemented, says Gurnon, would probably make the license-track degrees a five-year slog. Gurnon minced no words on Monday when he said, “I would hope that the U.S. Coast Guard would recognize that STCW has not translated into increased safety at sea or a better quality merchant officer.”
The proposed increase in sea time for cadets is not the only change that will be in store for those who hope to become professional mariners. A host of training changes are now being considered at the highest level of the and the U.S. Coast Guard. The inclusion of new protocols, mostly reflecting changes in technology and the recognized need for additional safety training such as firefighting, could add to the undergraduate course load. Gurnon contends that there is no room left in the existing timeframe for the increased credit hours.
Today – unlike thirty years ago – it is unlikely that the newly minted graduate will be able to leave the graduation ceremony and walk directly up the gangway. That’s because the training required by LNG carriers, tankers, offshore drilling and a raft of other specialties make what Gurnon describes as “the ambidextrous deck officer,” a thing of the past. Cadets choosing to become deck officers at the age of 21 very soon going to be buttonholed into one class of vessel. Changing from containerships to, say, the LNG trades is going to involve prolonged, mid-career and expensive training. It’s a lot to ask of anyone these days, especially when one sector of the market can collapse so quickly, as the containership market did in the recent recession. Think about it: Fully 25 percent of those officers lost their jobs virtually overnight.
- Reversing the Trend: Sweetening the Pot
For his part, Rick Gurnon is certain that minor changes in the way that money is allotted to maritime academy cadets could translate into real increases in the numbers of students that opt to take the license track. Currently, MARAD targets those students who are already at the academies for SIP awards. Conversely, Gurnon has long advocated that the funding should be allotted before they get to college, in NROTC-style recruiting efforts. He argues that students who are already there and halfway through the process are less interested in signing up for a commitment that would virtually mirror that being enforced at Kings Point, but affording only a fraction of the money being showered on USMMA students. In what amounted to tacit agreement that he was right, MARAD last year doubled the annual payments to qualifying cadets from $4,000 to $8,000.
A federal government OMB report states that just 29 of the 370 state maritime academy graduates in 2005 accepted tuition aid stipends requiring post-graduate commitments for maritime industry employment and active military reservist status. Arguably, those numbers could very well reflect the hesitancy of maritime academy cadets to commit to a military option in time of war and the uncertain times that we live in. But, others maintain that the stipends given to these state maritime academy students are far too low to compensate for the obligation, even with the recent increases.
’s President insists, “I see absolutely no evidence that our cadets are not willing to serve. Many of these kids accept commissions to serve anyway, without the stipends. The fact of the matter is that the stipend program involves a difficult and lengthy documentation period.” He went on to say that were the federal financial aid program to be run in a similar fashion to that set up at King’s Point (where the recipients of four-year scholarships are screened in high school) then every federal financial aid dollar would be spoken for, and well before any of these cadets started college. To back all of that up, and as this article went online, he claimed to have 60 cadets on the waiting list for SIP money.
Every single student at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy earns a degree, a license and a commission in the armed services that requires some commitment. As the gold standard for what those federal dollars should produce, state schools should aspire to at least close that gap in the near term. The wider and more efficient distribution of SIP payments at the state academies is one way to get there. In fact, recipients of stipends are more likely to gravitate to Military Sealift Command positions, where they are particularly desperate for qualified officers. Finally, the OMB admits that a state academy graduate is 36 percent less expensive to train than his/her King’s Point (USMMA) counterpart, while producing almost 70 percent of the country’s licensed officers for merchant service. In other words: a real bargain for the taxpayers and arguably, one place that the federal government ought to be increasing its investment.
- Equilibrium: Maritime finds solid middle ground
As graduation looms large in the porthole at the ’s Point campus of the , RADM Rick Gurnon is always looking for ways to do it better and squeeze more out the nation’s oldest continuously operating maritime academy. That’s not to say he isn’t happy with some things. He told MarPro on Monday that, “I’m both pleased and surprised that our class of 2010 has about the same ratio of license to non-license graduates. Right now, yes, I’m happy with the mix.” He went on to say that it costs about 1.5 times as much to educate the license-track cadet as it does someone headed down the environmental or facilities management career path. He added, “Student tuition and fees comprise the largest portion of our revenue stream. We are doing as much as we can with what we have, on the license side.”
Gurnon’s opinions, especially in his position as head of the second largest of all of the seven academies, might seem puzzling. On Monday, we asked him what U.S. Maritime Administrator David Matsuda might think of his positions on SIP payments and his nominal ‘happiness’ with producing a graduating class, only 53 percent of which choose to get licenses, while at the same using an expensive asset like the training ship – on loan from MARAD. Without hesitation, Gurnon responded, “The Maritime Administrator gets his money’s worth – and then some. fuels that ship, paints and maintains it and uses virtually free labor to do it. It is then ready and available for times of national emergency.”
We contacted MARAD to get their take on the current state of affairs, but the requested information did not arrive in time for the release of this e-column. There is one thing that lawmakers, regulators, maritime academy faculty and cadets and industry can probably agree on: the ongoing shortage of qualified merchant officers, notwithstanding the sour but on-the-mend economy, is very real. It threatens to worsen in the near term as STCW requirements all but eliminate the hope for unlicensed mariners to come up through the hawse pipe. From the American perspective, some simple fixes applied to how we make can make it more attractive to those who might consider a career at sea will do wonders. On the other hand, and if the /STCW gang has there way, the situation will likely get a lot worse in the short term. Either way, it won’t be long until we find out why. – MaritimeProfessional.com
View the 2008 statistics by clicking: http://img.marinelink.com/img/Maritime%20Professional/MaritimeStats08.html
View the 2009 statistics by clicking: http://img.marinelink.com/img/Maritime%20Professional/2009AcademyGrads.html
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Joseph Keefe is the leading commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. MaritimeProfessional is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.