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The new faces of maritime: Local women highlight changing workforce

Kate Ferguson joined the Duluth Seaway Port Authority last year as its director of business development. She’s seen here at the Clure Public Marine Terminal in front of equipment used in oil and gas refining in Alberta. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)1 / 4
Duluth East High School graduate Ellora Hammerberg is third mate aboard the Great Lakes freighter Edwin H. Gott. (Photo courtesy of Ellora Hammerberg)2 / 4
Ron Johnson, longtime trade development director at the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, retired Friday. “We need the best, as far as the best talent, to get the word out,” he said of generating business on the Great Lakes. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)3 / 4
Kate Ferguson joined the Duluth Seaway Port Authority last year as its director of business development; she’s a graduate of the Transportation and Logistics Management major at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com) 4 / 4

Looking out over the deck of the lake freighter Edwin H. Gott, Ellora Hammerberg surveyed a landscape just outside Detroit that was blackened with the soot and oil of industry.

“We just pulled up to Zug Island on the Detroit River,” Hammerberg said into her cellphone. “It’s just below and it’s not very pretty.”

As third mate aboard the 1,000-foot freighter, Hammerberg, 25, is living out a dream. A Duluth East High School graduate, she was called to the profession in her teens. Several seasons of a part-time job with the local Vista Fleet gave her an up-close look at the port of Duluth-Superior.

“Watching the big boats come into the harbor, it just fascinated me,” she said. “It also fascinated me that people didn’t pay attention to how important they are to keeping the economy and everything going.”

Hammerberg is not alone in her observation. Students in the Transportation and Logistics Management major at the University of Wisconsin-Superior call what they study “the great hidden empire.”

“Because if it works right, which it does most of the time, you don’t notice,” said Richard Stewart, the longtime director of the program who sailed for 15 years, finishing as a master of oceangoing vessels.

But for an industry that is experiencing a graying of its workforce, it’s imperative that people like Hammerberg find their way to it. Hers is among the fresh faces in an industry known for its scruffy beards.

In a 2012 study, titled “Transportation & Logistics 2030,” the world’s largest professional services firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, analyzed the growth of commodities and product movement around the globe against the backdrop of an aging workforce. It found that 35 percent of the American workforce was approaching retirement age; Stewart calls this generation of aging baby boomers the “pig in the python.” The industry, the study summarized, needed to make top priorities out of improving its image and training and developing younger workers.

The study also found the industry was dominated by men, with women making up between 20 and 30 percent of the workforce globally — and only 10 percent of its management.

“It’s an archaic industry for its propensity to include only men,” said Kate Ferguson, who last year joined the Duluth Seaway Port Authority as its director of business development. “But I’m seeing more and more younger professionals and women. There’s been an infusion.”

“Talk them out of it”

Ferguson, 32, grew up in Michigan on the shores of Lake Huron. For years, she lifeguarded and would use her binoculars to check out the lake freighters pulling into dock at the local LaFarge cement terminal.

She went to UWS to play hockey first and later soccer. It was an adviser who steered her into the burgeoning Transportation and Logistics Management major.

“It was an awakening,” Ferguson said. “It was right in front of me my entire life. ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

The first thing Stewart did was try to talk her out of it. Since its inception at the university in 1998, and Stewart’s arrival in 1999, the major has grown from three students to what it is now, pushing 90 — and Stewart has made it a point of first trying to talk each of his students out of the program.

It’s a 24/7 job, he’ll tell them. Managers are expected to get out into the field. They need to be willing to take a call at 4 a.m. on a Sunday to hear, “We’ve got a problem?” and respond with, “Give me the details.”

“If I can’t talk them out of it,” Stewart said, “they can stay.”

Blessed with support from the entire cluster of transportation industries in the Twin Ports — maritime, rail, air, truck and pipeline — the hallmarks of the UWS major are its internships and on-site visits that allow students to “caress the steel,” Stewart said.

These are boom times for Stewart’s graduating students, who typically have three to four jobs from which to pick. A study Stewart and UWS just submitted for peer review reveals one of the reasons for their prosperity: Of more than 600 colleges and universities surveyed, the UWS study found only 170 offered degrees in some combination of supply chain management or transportation and logistics.

The rise of the global economy has created a tremendous expansion of the need for transportation and logistics, Stewart said, but “at the same time we haven’t been putting a lot of people in the workforce.”

Most students, like Ferguson, transfer into the program once they’re already on campus, Stewart said. He explained that while moving goods around the world is a noble profession, the industry’s image problem comes from the fact that it’s not one people talk about in the way parents and their children discuss, say, getting into the medical or engineering fields, or other career-oriented professions.

“I have people all the time quizzically ask me, ‘Why aren’t people entering this field as freshmen?’” Stewart said. “But you always tell your kids to do what you think is important. So if you’re not telling them, who will?”

“We need the best”

Since starting with the local Port Authority in July, Ferguson has been working side-by-side with the person she was hired to replace, longtime trade development director Ron Johnson.

Ferguson came with credentials that included time spent at Essentia Health, the Great Lakes Fleet and Canadian National Railway. She described the overlapping time spent working alongside Johnson as one of “downloading for him and uploading for me.”

“She’s really going to have a full plate,” said Johnson, who retired Friday. “She’s a very smart, aggressive and talented person.”

The Port Authority website bills Ferguson as its “first point of contact for companies pursuing domestic and international trade opportunities.”

Johnson was noted for his work trying to create more agricultural shipping in the port after the grain industry’s peak in the late 1970s, and helping to keep Duluth from becoming nothing more than a residual port.

A Marine and later a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, Johnson first learned about transportation and logistics growing up on a dairy farm in Carlton County and later working for the Junction Oasis truck stop in Carlton. The settings offered valuable and practical lessons, he said.

He called the Great Lakes “the fourth coast,” joining the East, West and Gulf coasts, but added it’s tough work generating business given that the lakes’ shipping industry largely shuts down part of the year.

“We need the best, as far as the best talent, to get the word out,” he said.

Now charged with drumming up business for a Port Authority that soon will feature a nearly $18 million refurbished dock for general and project cargoes, Ferguson is eager to help diversify the cargoes coming into the Duluth port.

She said she couldn’t yet talk about specifics, but she’s optimistic and said there are opportunities on the horizon. The new employees coming into the industry, she said, are bringing with them more skills when it comes to data crunching and analysis.

When asked to assess her own strengths, Ferguson said, “I’m someone who has always brought energy and enthusiasm to the table.”

A different view

Back aboard the Gott, Hammerberg was getting ready to go on duty in the pilothouse.

“I’m the one in the front window, piloting the vessel — when to turn, what (coordinates) to steer on,” she said, “On the river, the captain still stands by.”

Hammerberg graduated in 2009 from Duluth East before attending the Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City, Mich. Whereas programs like the major at UWS will produce the next generation of managers, the maritime academies located near ports across the country will train its operators.

Job placement is nearly 100 percent out of the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, Hammerberg said, recalling the vessel operating companies and unions that would come to the academy and pitch their opportunities to the next wave of seafarers.

Following a mandatory sea project in the summer of 2014, Hammerberg graduated and chose to go to work for the Duluth-based Great Lakes Fleet, now owned by CN, because it stood out as a good fit for her. She’s spent little time back home in Duluth since — one of the trade-offs for a life on the water.

“I live on the boat more often than anything else,” she said. “You learn to see the world from a different point of view from what a lot of people see. When you’re away you fully appreciate being home. You don’t take a lot of the things for granted that people normally do.”

Hammerberg recently got engaged to another graduate of the maritime academy and together they’re going to make a home base out of Traverse City.

Looking out at Zug Island, she resisted the temptation to go ashore. There are safer places.

Asked about the maritime industry’s future when it comes to filling its wave of retirees, Hammerberg stuck to her specialty.

“Honestly, I’m not 100 percent positive,” she said. “A lot of companies are changing and trying to become more efficient. But the office deals with all the numbers. Me, personally, as third mate, I’m keeping it running.”

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