Ferry network misses hiring target for summer schedule

Alaska Ferry System and Department of Transportation officials plan to meet this week in Ketchikan to consider options for meeting the announced summer schedule amid continued crew shortages on board.

The department missed its self-imposed schedule of hiring enough workers by March 1 to ensure the Columbia on May 1 would be back in service for the first time since the fall. 2019. The Alaska Marine Highway System had said it needed to hire at least 166 new employees to staff its fleet, a shortfall of about a quarter of its total authorized hiring level.

Not hiring until March 1 doesn’t mean Columbia will sit idle for another summer, said Katherine Keith, the department’s director of change management. The ferry could begin operating between Bellingham, Washington and southeast Alaska later in May if enough onboard crew are available.

Or it may mean that the ship sits idle for another year.

The Alaska representative for one of the three ferry worker unions is worried there won’t be enough crew to meet the full summer schedule that begins to ramp up in a few months. Ben Goldrich of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association said Keith is “doing an admirable job of trying to pick up the pieces” of previous inadequate recruiting efforts, but, for example, he said, the system failed engineers over the past decade.

“I’m not aware of them doing anything to recruit engineers,” Goldrich said last Thursday.

Although 166 is the minimum number of new employees needed, 350 new hires across all job categories this spring and summer would be even better to account for illness, vacation and to avoid overtime while operating seven vessels in the southeast, Prince William Sound and southwest Alaska, officials said.

The Columbia, the largest ship in the fleet with room for nearly 500 passengers, will not be available for bookings until management is confident the ship will have enough crew to sail.

To compound the problem, “we keep losing people” to quits, Keith said.

As of Wednesday, the ferry system had about 50 applicants “who submitted applications that we are processing,” Keith said. The Sea Highway continues to advertise in Alaska and across the country, and has signed a $250,000 contract with an Anchorage-based recruiting firm to help find more candidates.

“We understand that to staff our ships, we have to look nationally,” she said.

The marine industry faces many of the same labor shortages as other employers across the country.

Management met last week with officials from the three unions that represent state ferry workers to seek new ideas for recruiting more candidates, Keith said. This includes working with maritime academies, a Boatmen’s Union (IBU) training program and others, but this will take time and is unlikely to produce graduates until late summer, he said. she declared.

“We’re seeing where we need to leverage a lot of resources that we haven’t used before,” such as stepping up hiring efforts through union hiring halls, Keith said.

Nearly three-quarters of vacancies were for junior ship stewards, department officials reported during a presentation last month to the House Finance Subcommittee for the Transportation Department’s budget. Stewards are represented by the IBU.

A big part of the problem is that quits and retirements have outpaced new hires over the past three years.

“Staffing goals for the summer season will not be met at current hiring rates,” the department said in its submission to the House Transportation Committee last month, explaining that insufficient staffing could lead to a reduction. of the ferry system’s summer timetable.

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