B.C. Ferries Struggles to Fill Staff Shortages

bc ferries
File image courtesy BC Ferries

Published Aug 21, 2022 11:36 PM by The Maritime Executive

The effects of the pandemic continue to propagate through the maritime workforce in the form of early retirements, recruitment challenges and further rounds of mild infection. As a prime example, B.C. Ferries has struggled with staffing shortages through the summer, and it continues to cancel multiple sailings on busy weekends because of insufficient manning. On Saturday alone, the line had to cancel a dozen sailings because of staffing challenges, adding to a long list of service interruptions. 

B.C. Ferries CEO Mark Collins was dismissed by the firm's board last month due (in part) to the operational difficulties caused by staffing shortages. In the 28-day period leading up to his dismissal, there were more than 170 canceled sailings, according to CBC. 

Though traffic volume has rebounded and the line has returned to profitability under Collins' leadership, the board wants to reorient towards a "people-centered" culture, chair Joy MacPhail said at an annual shareholder meeting Thursday. She suggested that B.C. Ferries' employees may not have received enough recognition for the service they performed during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this may now be affecting operations. 

"We have to have a staff that feels valued, that can raise their families on what they earn, and that are healthy and well enough to show up for work,” she told the Vancouver Sun. 

In addition to support for existing crew, this also means more recruitment of new mariners to replace retirements and departures. This is a reversal: in 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, B.C. Ferries attempted (unsuccessfully) to lay off about 1,000 staff in order to balance its budget and offset a collapse in demand for travel. 

The Canadian ferry operator's neighbors have had many of the same challenges. Washington State Ferries and the Alaska Marine Highway System have both encountered staffing difficulties, though they draw on a different hiring pool. In July, WSF began "operating on alternate schedules on most routes until further notice" due to a "global shortage of mariners." 

At Alaska Marine Highway, the newly-restored ferry Tustumena had to tie up at the pier in July due to "a critical crew shortage" - just when she was returning to service from a long yard period. To fill vacant seagoing positions, AMHS has launched an "aggressive hiring campaign" involving headhunters, job fairs and signing bonuses of up to $5,000 for unlicensed positions.