Staffing Challenges Loom for Alaska Marine Highway System

Tustumena (AMHS)

Published Jul 27, 2022 9:33 PM by The Maritime Executive

The nationwide challenges for hiring and staffing have reached Alaska, where the Alaska Marine Highway System is working hard to fill positions - and has had to suspend at least one sailing due to a manning shortage. 

The ferry Tustumena, which serves on the run out to the Aleutian Chain, has had to berth at Homer until at least Saturday. She had just returned to service July 16 after an extended yard period. According to AMHS, "a critical crew shortage required the vessel to stay in port for safety reasons." 

The ship had been running with a small crew since mid-July, but because AMHS cannot find enough replacement staff to cover "essential positions that are vacant due to illness or other qualifying needs," it has fallen below the manning level needed. The agency said that staffing shortages have been a concern throughout the AMHS, as in the rest of the country. 

To fill seagoing positions, AMHS has launched an "aggressive hiring campaign." It has hired headhunters, attended job fairs in the Northwest, and even offered signing bonuses of $5,000, comparable to the current bonus amounts in the trucking industry. According to its site, it is focused on hiring for unlicensed positions in the deck and engine department, as well as support staff and stewards. 

According to local KUCB News, the Tustumena is important for small fishing ports like Akutan and False Pass, which can't accommodate the larger ferry Kennicott, the only other vessel on the route. 

Tustumena is 58 years old, and the State of Alaska hopes to replace her within about five years' time. However, no shipyards bid on the recent request for proposals for the construction of a replacement, according to Alaska House Speaker Rep. Louise Stutes. 

The hiring and contracting difficulties compound the line's challenges with financial stability. AMHS operates underserved remote communities with support from the state, and it has had to fend off intense budget pressure from the office of Alaska's governor in recent years. A $30 million budget cut forced it to curtail service in Southeast Alaska in 2019, including suspension of winter service to Cordova.  It had to cancel plans for a refit for the ferry Malaspina, and it considered reefing her instead to save costs; she was ultimately sold to a private party for use as an attraction. In 2020, AMHS sold off two high-speed ferries to a Spanish operator at a discount. This year its budget was fully funded, thanks in large part to federal assistance, but it faces an uncertain political climate going forward.