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News / Business

In Washington, maritime labor headed for a retirement cliff

By Scott Greenstone, The Seattle Times
Published: September 5, 2017, 6:05am
2 Photos
In the wheelhouse of the ferry Issaquah, interns John Bresnahan, left, at the wheel, and Sebstian Jewell, right, approach Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal.
In the wheelhouse of the ferry Issaquah, interns John Bresnahan, left, at the wheel, and Sebstian Jewell, right, approach Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal. Greg Gilbert/Seattle Times Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — When Capt. Ken Penwell’s son was looking for a job, Penwell offered to get him work as a deckhand. Penwell captains hopper dredges for Seattle’s Manson Construction, sucking up dirt and clay from river beds.

But Kyle Penwell didn’t want to go into his father’s career.

” ‘Dad, I don’t want to be gone that long from friends and family like you were,’ ” the father recalled his son saying.

Ken Penwell has been in the maritime industry 37 years, and in his first job he was gone for five months at a time. He texts and calls his family as often as possible, but the job has taken a toll. Penwell has been separated from his wife for 10 years.

Penwell is 60 and hoping to retire soon. He’s not the only one: The marine workforce in Washington state — which includes sailors, engineers, captains and other workers on everything from tugboats to shipping vessels — is headed for a mass retirement. Close to a third of the state’s almost 6,000 water-transportation workers alone are older than 55, according to 2016 data from the Census Bureau.

“We’re just about at a cliff,” said Joshua Berger, director of economic development for the maritime sector of the Washington state Department of Commerce. He says this issue is the maritime sector’s biggest concern right now.

For years, young people haven’t been entering the maritime trades in numbers sufficient to fill holes left by old workers, Berger and other experts say. Seamen, captains, pilots, engineers, shipbuilders, dock workers, and even galley cooks, among others, are getting older and older with few qualified people to take their place.

Some sectors are in crisis mode: This problem could keep Washington State Ferries from sailing, according to ferries spokesman Ian Sterling. Approximately 40 percent of the ferry system’s vessel employees are eligible for retirement in the next five to 10 years, and around 88 percent of the ferries’ captains.

“Frankly, we are already too late to address our problem,” Sterling said.

Maritime workers help support a $17 billion industry in Washington. The average maritime laborer in Washington made almost $67,000 a year in May 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; a captain, mate or pilot made almost $84,000.

So why aren’t young people going down to the docks to get jobs like their parents did? In answers to The Seattle Times’ callout to readers, mariners gave a range of reasons: schools steering students toward college and away from blue-collar labor, the training and tests hopeful mariners have to complete, the tough nature of the work, and notions that the industry is “old and dirty.”

• • •

Maritime labor isn’t easy. Robert Robison followed his father into tug boating, but he understands why many of today’s young people don’t want to do it. He’s 57 and has worked on tugboats for 29 years, and he’s retiring as soon as possible.

“I’d retire today if I could,” Robison said.

Robison’s work in the ocean division of tug boating takes him across the Pacific. He recently returned from a 90-day trip from Seattle to Hawaii to Korea to Japan to Russia and back.

This work isolates him from life on the mainland: In the past, he’s been called to sea for months and months with little notice.

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“Someone says, ‘I’m having a party — a wedding in September, can you come?’ ” Robison said. “I don’t know if I can make it.”

When Robison started in tug boating, the only way he could call his wife was at pay phones wherever the ship stopped. He’d wait in line with change, call home, and sometimes his wife would be at the store.

“It’s brutal if you have small kids,” Robison said. “It’s extremely hard on marriages.”

But Robison has been married 28 years. Today, ships have internet, but on his tugs, it’s as slow as dial-up used to be, he says.

But for some, the sea is a welcome change from life on land. Geoff Dickgieser is a student at Seattle Maritime Academy who is interning on a steam ship in the Bering Sea.

“All the problems and complications of life at home are far away,” Dickgieser said via email, his only steady connection with the outside world when he’s at sea. “There’s really nothing you can do about them from out here, so they tend to just fall away.”

• • •

The days of walking down to the docks and getting a job are long gone. Today, many entry-level jobs require hours of training and certifications from the Coast Guard. Crews on ships are smaller, and each job requires more skills than it used to, according to Vince O’Halleran, Seattle branch agent for the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, which represents around 1,500 mariners in Washington.

In 1970, a 14,000- to 16,000-ton ship would have a crew of 56, O’Halleran said. Today, 21 can staff a vessel twice that size. Today’s ships — especially large vessels — are run by computers and require electricians and crew with knowledge of computer science, because you can’t call IT from a ship.

In the old days, jobs were easy to get, plentiful, and cities were full of mariners. It was easy for people like Robison to “walk off the street and walk onto a tugboat,” Robison said.

Today, many students don’t hear about maritime jobs in high school, according to many advocates and mariners.

“How do we get past the perception that the trades are for if you couldn’t get into college?” said Sam Laher, a shipwright who teaches in the Wood Technology Center at Seattle Central College. Laher is the son of a lobbyist and a lawyer who wanted their son to go to college. But college wasn’t for him: He dropped out and joined the Coast Guard in 1995.

Laher had always wanted to work with wooden boats, so after he left the Coast Guard, he enrolled in Seattle Central College’s marine-carpentry program in 2002.

“There’s no one to work on these boats,” Laher said. “Marine carpentry is seen as a dying trade.”

It’s not just wooden boats that need workers. Vigor Industrial, the dominant shipbuilder in the Northwest, has been struggling for years to find enough job applicants for welding, pipe-fitting and other shipyard jobs. Sue Haley, Vigor’s executive vice president of human resources and administration, has been working on this problem for over six years.

“This is definitely my life here,” Haley said. “We have craftsmen here who are in their 70s.”

The company has partnered with public colleges to open training centers in Alaska, Portland and Seattle. In 2013, it worked with South Seattle College to open a training center where Vigor provided the equipment and workplace, and the college provided the instructors and courses.

Vigor hires the majority of the graduates from this program. The result: Vigor’s average age is 46 today, where it was 54 six years ago.

• • •

Intern Sebastian Jewell takes the quartermaster’s place at the wheel of the ferry Cathlamet on his last run of the day. Jewell will start his senior year at California State University Maritime Academy in the fall, but this summer he’s been at work starting at 5 a.m. daily on the Washington State Ferries. The pay is $50 a day.

Jewell is part of a team of 21 interns from Seattle Maritime Academy and California Maritime who’ve worked in the engine rooms, decks and wheelhouses of Washington’s ferries all summer. Jewell says the old deck crew have passed on a lot of wisdom to him, from how to navigate between sail boats to advice about deferred compensation.

“They’re the wealth of knowledge,” Jewell said.

This summer for the first time, Washington State Ferries has even started inviting nonmaritime students to come onboard in the hopes that they’ll be inspired to go into maritime labor like Jewell.

Jewell grew up outside Seattle, but he’s the only one in his family who’s ever gone into maritime labor. He’s fallen in love with the ferry system, where he can be home every night and on the water every day.

“Every boat has its own feel,” Jewell said. “There’s lots of wisdom even in the boats themselves.”

For these old boats to keep sailing, Washington is going to need to find more young mariners like Jewell.