Cultivating Tomorrow’s Waterways Workforce
AWO is taking action to help address an industry need and a national imperative to recruit, retain and develop the next generation of maritime employees.
By Jennifer Carpenter, President & CEO, The American Waterways Operators
As much as the tugboat, towboat and barge industry contributes to our nation’s prosperity and security today, we are an industry with an incredibly bright future that has even more to offer in the years to come. Our industry is uniquely positioned to be part of the solution as shipper-customers and government reflect on recent experience and confront a dynamic and challenging future landscape.
Recent supply chain challenges have underscored the value of the domestic maritime industry, which visibly performed as a rare bright spot of supply chain reliability throughout the pandemic.
Barge transportation is both the safest and most sustainable mode of freight transportation in America today, offering shippers the opportunity to lessen both their safety risk and environmental footprint.
The Jones Act fleet will be integral to the development of the burgeoning American offshore wind industry, a win-win for American jobs and clean energy.
Our industry’s role as a critical component of military readiness – both in transporting military cargo and guiding Navy ships through U.S. ports, and providing the military with a pool of well-trained, reliable American mariners to assist with sealift operations in times of crisis – will be all the more imperative in an era of great power competition.
Taken together, these factors suggest a trajectory of new and increasing demand for marine transportation, and a long-term need to ensure a large and continuous pipeline of mariners and shoreside employees to power our industry’s future growth. We have both an industry need and a national imperative to recruit, retain and develop the next generation of maritime employees. Working with our members, AWO is pursuing a Board-approved action plan to help address this multifaceted workforce challenge.
First, many companies are stretched thin and lack the time and resources to devote to identifying and attracting new personnel, or retaining current team members, in today’s tight labor market. And for those companies that are able to channel additional resources toward recruitment and retention, many are doing so for the first time.
To help our members address this bandwidth challenge, AWO is developing recruiting toolkits to provide companies with an understanding of the recruiting opportunities available to them in their local environments including high schools, technical schools, maritime academies, military communities and elsewhere. We are also convening a series of member forums so companies can hear presentations from experts, exchange information and share lessons learned on recruitment and retention practices. Recognizing that no one strategy will work for all members, we are committed to providing opportunities to learn from companies of all sizes, representing varying sectors and geographic locations.
Alongside a shortage of bandwidth and resources, companies are also finding that after many years of recruiting through word-of-mouth and relying on tried-and-true networks from which to draw new hires, those channels are no longer sufficient to meet the needs of a growing industry. New marketing approaches are needed to attract a younger, more diverse workforce to careers on the waterways, which is why AWO is focused on telling the story of our incredible industry in creative, impactful ways – whether through extensive use of video focused on careers; social media campaigns like our “Coolness Factor” campaign highlighting the coolest operations going on in the tugboat, towboat and barge industry and the #proudtobeTTB campaign where mariners explain on video what they enjoy most about working in the industry; or by highlighting, through the American Waterways Honor and Excellence in Rescue Operations (HERO) Award, the rescues undertaken by AWO member company employees that demonstrate selflessness, skill and bravery.
Attracting and retaining a younger, more diverse workforce also means creating safe and inclusive workplaces that prioritize prevention of any kind of bullying or harassment, including sexual harassment and assault. To help foster such an environment, AWO is working closely with legal and human resources professionals from member companies, the Coast Guard, the Maritime Administration, and other stakeholders to craft policies and practices that cultivate an inviting workforce culture while also being practicable and effective to implement.
While fostering and promoting an appealing culture for a younger, more diverse workforce is critical to recruitment and retention, so too is addressing bureaucratic and policy impediments to attracting and retaining high-quality employees. Coast Guard credential processing delays are an ongoing challenge, as they not only create obstacles for new mariners entering our industry but can also drive away current mariners seeking to continue and advance their careers. AWO is partnering with the National Maritime Center and the National Merchant Marine Personnel Advisory Committee to alleviate processing delays, as well as advocating for regulatory action that ensures safety and mariner competency while removing unnecessary requirements that hold back mariner advancement.
The growing patchwork of states legalizing or considering legalization of marijuana also poses challenges to mariner recruitment and retention. Legalization at the state level is increasing the number of applicants who cannot pass a federal drug test, which still prohibits cannabis but is required for entry into the maritime workforce. To help companies navigate this complex issue, AWO is advocating for the Department of Transportation and the Coast Guard to approve oral fluid specimen testing as a more flexible, less onerous and still effective testing method that provides a more reasonable time window for detection. We are also exploring opportunities to partner with similarly situated transportation modes and organizations to promote measures that maintain drug-free workplaces without unduly constricting the pool of eligible applicants.
Finally, recognizing that changing lifestyle expectations and numerous shoreside opportunities within and outside our industry can make it difficult to retain mariners, AWO is undertaking several efforts specifically focused on retention. These include convening member-to-member forums to share retention and advancement best practices and lessons learned, and collaborating with partners like the Seamen’s Church Institute and others to develop resources to help companies enhance mariner wellness and wellbeing.
The strength and vibrancy of the tugboat, towboat and barge industry comes from its people. AWO looks forward to working with companies and partners throughout our industry and throughout our country to grow the workforce we need to seize the opportunities of tomorrow.
About the Author:
Jennifer Carpenter is President & CEO of The American Waterways Operators, the tugboat, towboat and barge industry’s advocate, resource and united voice for safe, sustainable and efficient transportation on America’s waterways, oceans and coasts.