U.S. Offshore Operators Launch Effort to Boost Mariner Recruitment

Civilian mariners aboard USNS Comfort, 2018 (USN)

Published Oct 19, 2021 11:56 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Offshore Marine Services Association (OMSA) is launching a new initiative to address problems that American vessel operators are experiencing in recruiting and training enough mariners. The changing job landscape is making it harder for vessel operators to hire and promote, insiders say - and the policies of the U.S. Coast Guard's credentialing division may not be helping. 

OMSA is setting up an advisory committee to help guide its workforce development efforts. The committee will be charged with formulating recommendations for OMSA's board on policies that would serve to increase the number of people working in the U.S. merchant marine - a key concern for maritime businesses, as well as a critical priority for the U.S. Maritime Administration

The new committee will decide the specifics of OMSA's policy priorities, but all American vessel operators face well-known challenges in a changing job market.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit early last year, maritime employers had to adapt to a new reality of reduced activity and lower demand. Payrolls went down, and many mariners temporarily left the workforce. Today, the economy is on the rebound and vessel operators are trying to staff up again to match demand. They need experienced personnel to come back, but many of the mariners who might like to return (or come back from retirement) face problems with credentialing. 

The Coast Guard's National Maritime Center (NMC) gave mariners automatic license extentions during the height of the pandemic, when its Regional Exam Centers (RECs) were closed due to COVID concerns. Those extensions have now ended, and the service has reinstituted the normal one-year grace period for renewal. If that period passes, the mariner's valuable credential effectively disappears, unless he or she had the foresight to apply for a "Document of Continuity." According to vessel operators, some experienced mariners who stayed on shore during the pandemic neglected to check that box, and they have lost their licenses.

Like other employers, vessel operators are also having a hard time attracting entry-level workers. Dozens of job advertisements for AB and ordinary seaman positions can be found on Indeed.com, with some of the biggest names in American maritime putting out a help-wanted sign - and for many of these posts, no experience is needed. Finding enough applicants for these once-competitive posts can be tough these days, but "retaining a new worker past the six- or nine-month point is the real challenge," says one insider.

Fixing these problems would help keep open a career path that has benefited generations of American mariners. Even without a college degree, a good deckhand can work his or her up to a licensed position and pull down a six-figure salary, with enough sea time and training. Through advocacy, OMSA hopes that it can keep that career path alive for the next generation as well.