Alaska ferry system and Department of Transportation officials plan to gather this week in Ketchikan to consider options for fulfilling the advertised summer schedule amid a continuing shortage of onboard crew.
The department failed to meet its self-imposed timeline of hiring enough workers by March 1 to ensure that the Columbia on May 1 would return to service for the first time since fall 2019. The Alaska Marine Highway System had said it needed to hire at least 166 new employees to staff up its fleet — a gap of about one-quarter of its total authorized hiring level.
Failing to make the hires by March 1 does not mean the Columbia will sit idle another summer, said Katherine Keith, the department’s change management director. The ferry could start running between Bellingham, Washington, and Southeast Alaska later in May if enough onboard crew is available.
Or it may mean the ship sits idle another year.
The Alaska representative for one of three ferry worker unions is concerned there will not be enough crew to meet the full summer schedule that starts ramping up in a couple of months. Ben Goldrich, of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, said Keith “is doing an admirable job of trying to pick up the pieces” of inadequate past recruitment efforts but, for example, he said, the system has been short-staffed on engineers the past decade.
“I am not aware of them doing anything to recruit engineers,” Goldrich said last Thursday.
Though 166 is the minimum number of new employees needed, 350 new hires in all job categories this spring and summer would be even better to allow for illnesses, vacations and to avoid overtime while operating seven ships in Southeast, Prince William Sound and Southwest Alaska, officials have said.
The Columbia, the largest ship in the fleet with room for almost 500 passengers, will not be available for bookings until management is certain the ship will have enough crew to sail.
Making the problem even worse, “we continue to lose people” due to resignations, Keith said.
As of last Wednesday, the ferry system had about 50 candidates “who have submitted applications that we are processing,” Keith said. The marine highway continues to advertise in Alaska and nationwide, and has signed a $250,000 contract with an Anchorage-based recruiting firm to help find more applicants.
“We do understand that to staff our vessels we have to look nationwide,” she said.
The maritime industry faces many of the same worker shortages as other employers across the country.
Management met last week with officials of the three unions that represent state ferry workers to search for new ideas to recruit more applicants, Keith said. That includes working with maritime academies, an Inlandboatmen’s Union (IBU) training program and others, but those will take time and likely not produce graduates until later in the summer, she said.
“We do see where we have to leverage a lot of resources we haven’t used before,” such as stepping up hiring efforts through union hiring halls, Keith said.
Almost three-quarters of the vacancies were for entry-level stewards aboard the ships, department officials reported in a presentation last month at the House Finance Subcommittee for the Transportation Department budget. Stewards are represented by the IBU.
Much of the problem is that resignations and retirements have exceeded new hires the past three years.
“Staffing goals for the summer season will not be met at current recruitment rates,” the department reported in its presentation to the House Transportation Committee last month, explaining that insufficient staffing could result in scaling back the ferry system’s summer schedule.