Jobs by the boatload

There's a lot of gray hair floating on the Great Lakes these days. The average age of licensed officers serving on Great Lakes vessels is about 53, according to Adm. John Tanner, head of the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, a school for mariners in ...

There's a lot of gray hair floating on the Great Lakes these days.

The average age of licensed officers serving on Great Lakes vessels is about 53, according to Adm. John Tanner, head of the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, a school for mariners in Traverse City, Mich.

And many of those seamen are fast approaching retirement, said Tanner, who noted that it's common for officers in their mid- to late-50s to call it quits.

"It's not only a matter of trying to keep our numbers strong," Tanner said. "It's an issue because all that knowledge is leaving our industry."

Tanner said carriers rightly are concerned about a looming shortage of mariners, unless more people train for careers on the Great Lakes.


"Obviously, we need to create the next generation of officers," said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of corporate communications for the Lake Carriers Association, a Cleveland-based trade organization representing the operators of U.S.-flagged ships on the Great Lakes.

"It is a real concern," said Kevin McMonagle, vice president of human resources for American Steamship Co., a Great Lakes carrier based in Williamsville, N.Y., just outside of Buffalo. "We certainly can't take our work force for granted."

Toward that end, McMonagle said American Steamship has developed succession plans and has been grooming junior officers to assume greater responsibilities in the future.

Unfortunately, Tanner said most people seem unaware of the job opportunities, moving freight on the Great Lakes.

"It's a very quiet industry," he said.

McMonagle finds it odd that more people aren't pursuing maritime careers.

"There's a lot of interest out there in Great Lakes shipping, but people don't seem to know about the employment opportunities on these vessels," he said.

McMonagle said it's still possible to land an entry-level job as a utility worker or a seaman and advance through shipboard experience and study to positions of progressively greater authority. In the industry, this is called working your way "up the hawsepipe."


It's also possible to move straight into an officer's post with proper formal training. The Great Lakes Maritime Academy offers four-year degrees that qualify graduates to serve as officers on either freshwater or saltwater ships. Tanner said most graduates can expect to earn around $60,000 during their first year out of college.

Still, many cadets don't make the cut. Tanner said graduation rates vary from class to class, but typically between 40 and 55 percent of students who enroll in the academy drop out or fail to earn a degree.

At present, about 130 cadets are enrolled at the Great Lakes Maritime Academy. That's well shy of the 200-cadet target Tanner has set, in hopes of meeting the growing need for new officers.


Many graduates from merchant marine academies, such as the school in Traverse City, are lured into shoreside jobs, however. Only about 5 to 10 percent of people who earn four-year maritime degrees still are on the water 20 years later, according to Richard Plant, director of special projects for the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots. He said research has shown that 80 to 85 percent ultimately find employment in a maritime-related industry, and another 10 to 15 percent take jobs in an unrelated field.

Davis Helberg, former director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and a one-time laker deckhand, said some attrition is to be expected, given the demands of sailing.

"People tend to go to sea when they're young," Helberg said. "But once a mariner reaches a certain age, life away from home and family often becomes more difficult, so the number of people who hang in there long enough to become officers and engineers diminishes."

Fred Cummings, former marine superintendent for the Great Lakes Fleet, a Duluth-based carrier, worked 20 years on the water before taking a shoreside job. He said working on a laker means spending long stretches of time away from home. Typically, crew members spend two solid months on the water, then take one month of vacation and repeat the cycle throughout the Great Lakes shipping season. Mariners also get a break during the winter layup, from mid-January through March.


"It takes a special breed of person to be employed on a laker," he said. "But it's just as important to have a loving and understanding wife, because you do give up a lot of time with your family. It takes a lot of dedication from your spouse."

Plant agreed that the seaman's life can be tough on families.

"Every mariner has stories about deaths, weddings, birthdays or anniversaries they missed," he said. "When you're on a ship, you're working seven days a week."


But seamen generally are compensated well for their services. Licensed officers can earn from $60,000 to more than $100,000 per year, and an able seaman or a qualified member of a ship's engine department typically makes between $35,000 and $40,000 for starters, according to Tanner. That's for about 200 days' worth of work.

The pay sometimes makes it hard for even disenchanted mariners to leave the profession, Helberg said, calling it the "golden handcuff" effect.

"Some people find they can't leave, because they're making money they could never make on shore," he said.

Although Great Lakes carriers today are concerned about a potential shortage of mariners, there was a time when the industry had a glut.


As lakers increased in size, the number of vessels plying the Great Lakes shrank. A single 1,000-footer can carry the equivalent of what five older lakers could.

Great Lakes fleets also were downsized during the 1980s, as the nation's steel production slipped. As layoffs generally occurred in order of seniority, Nekvasil said many young mariners working on the Great Lakes lost jobs, prompting them to relocate or take up work in another field.

Today, about 60 U.S.-flagged lakers serve the Great Lakes -- a fleet roughly one-third its former size.

Crews have grown smaller, too. Back when lakers ran on coal, they often carried a crew of 36 people. As liquid fuels took coal's place, laker crews dropped to 26 or 27 people. Today, thanks to technology and automation, most lakers operate with a crew of 22 people.

But Tanner sees a bright future for people seeking careers on the Great Lakes.

"As our roads become more and more plugged, I think there will only be more business for Great Lakes vessels," he predicted.

As for the challenge of crewing vessels, Adolph Ojard, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said carriers face a challenge that's far from unique.

"Finding workers has become an issue almost everywhere in the transportation industry," he said, pointing out that truck drivers and railroad are in tight supply, as well.


"Part of it is the lifestyle -- having to be away from home for extended periods of time," Ojard said. But transportation jobs are definitely on the rise.

"Our transportation industry has been growing at almost double the rate of the GNP [gross national product]," he said.

Peter Passi covers business and development. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5526 or by e-mail at .

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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