Before dawn on a recent day in the port of Seattle, dense autumn fog hugged Puget Sound and ship-to-shore container cranes hovered over the docks like industrial sentinels. Under the dim glimmer of orange floodlights, the crew of the tugboat Millennium Falcon fired up her engines for a long day of towing oil barges and refueling a variety of large vessels, like container ships.
The first thing to know about barges is that they don’t move themselves. They are propelled and guided by tugs like the Falcon, which is owned by Centerline Logistics, one of the largest U.S. transporters of marine petroleum. Such companies may not be household names, but the nation’s energy supply chain would have broken under the pandemic’s pressure without the steady presence of their fleets — and their crews.
“We’re a floating gas station,” said Bowman Harvey, a director of operations at Centerline, as he stood aboard the Falcon, his neck tattoo of the Statue of Liberty pivoting from the base of his flannel whenever he gestured at a machine or busy colleague nearby. Demand is solid, he said, and the enterprise is profitable. The company’s client list, which includes Exxon Mobil and Maersk, the global shipping giant, is robust. But manning the fleet has become a struggle.
Multiyear charter contracts for key lines of business — refueling ships, transporting fuel for refineries and general towing jobs — are locked in across all three coasts, plus Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico, Mr. Harvey said. Yet as pandemic-related staffing shortages have eased in other industries, Centerline is still short on staff. “Hands down,” Mr. Harvey said, “our biggest challenge right now is finding crew.”
Safely moving, loading and unloading oil at sea requires both simple and high-skill jobs that cannot be automated. And the labor supply issues in merchant marine transportation are emblematic of the conundrum seen in a variety of decently paying, male-heavy jobs in the trades.
Over the past 50 years, male labor force participation, the share of men working or actively looking for work, has steadily fallen as female participation has climbed.
Some scholars have a grim explanation for the trend. Nicholas Eberstadt, the conservative-leaning author of “Men Without Work,” argues that there has been a swell in men who are “inert, written off or discounted by society and, perhaps, all too often, even by themselves.” Others, like the Brookings Institution senior fellow Richard V. Reeves, put less emphasis on potential social pathologies but say a “male malaise” is hampering households and the economy.
Centerline employees are among about 75,000 categorized by the Department of Labor as water transportation workers, a group in which men outnumber women five to one.
Though the gender split in the industry is more even for onshore office roles, workers and applicants for jobs on the water are predominantly male. Centerline says it has roughly 220 offshore crew members and about 35 openings. Captains and company managers agree that changing attitudes toward work among young men play a part in the labor shortage. But the strongest consensus opinion is that structural demographic shifts are against them. “We’re seeing a gray wave of retirement,” said Mr. Harvey, who is 38.
Even though replacements are needed and, on the whole, lacking, there are new young recruits who are thriving, such as Noah Herrera Johnson, 19, who has joined Centerline as a cadet deckhand, an entry-level role.
On a Thursday morning out in the harbor, Mr. Herrera Johnson deftly unknotted, flipped and refastened a series of sailing knots as the crew unmoored from a sister boat that was aiding the refueling of a Norwegian Cruise Line ship. A small crowd of curious cruise passengers peeked down as he bopped through the sequences and the sun’s glare began to pierce the fog, bouncing off the undulating waves.
“I enjoy it a lot,” Mr. Herrera Johnson said of his work, as he sliced some meat in the galley later on. (Some kitchen work and cleaning are part of the gig and the fraternal ritual of paying dues.) “I get along with everyone — everyone has stories to tell,” he said. “And I was never good at school.”
Mr. Herrera Johnson, who is Mexican American and whose mother is from Seattle, spent most of his life in Cabo San Lucas, in Baja California, until he moved back to the United States shortly after turning 18.
Though entry-level roles aboard don’t require college credentials, new regulations have made at least briefly attending a vocational maritime academy a necessity for those who want to rise quickly up the crew ladder. Because he is interested in becoming a captain by his late 20s, he began a two-year program at the nearby Pacific Maritime Institute in March, and he earns course credits for work at Centerline between classes.
He got his “first tug” in May: an escapade from New Orleans through the Panama Canal to San Francisco, patched with some bad weather. “Two months, two long months — it was fun,” he said. “We had a few things going on. We lost steering a few times. But it was cool.”
In short, the industry needs far more Noahs. Many Centerline employees have informally become part-time recruiters — handing out cards, encouraging seemingly capable young men who may be between jobs, undecided about college or disillusioned with the standard 9-to-5 existence to consider being a mariner instead.
“When I’m trying to get friends or family members to come into the business,” Mr. Harvey said, “I make sure to remind them: Don’t think of this as a job, think of it as a lifestyle.”
Internet connections aboard are common these days, and there is plenty of downtime for movies, TV, reading, cooking and joking around with sea mates. (On slow days, captains will sometimes do doughnuts in the water like victorious racecar drivers, turning the whole vessel into a Tilt-a-Whirl ride for the crew: sea legs required.)
Of course, those leisurely moments punctuate days and nights of heaving lines, tying knots, making repairs, executing multiple refueling jobs and helping to navigate the tugboat: rain or shine, heat or heavy seas.
It’s “an adventurous life,” Mr. Harvey said, one that he and others acknowledge has its pros and cons. Mariners in this sector — whether they are entry-level deckhands, midtier mates and engineers, or crew-leading tankermen and captains — are usually on duty at sea in tight quarters and bunk beds for a month or more.
On the bright side, however, because of an “equal time” policy, full-time crew members are given roughly just as much time off for the same annual pay.
“When I go home, you know, I’m taking essentially 35 days off,” said Capt. Ryan Buckhalter, 48, who’s been a mariner for 20 years. For many, it’s a refreshing work-life balance, he said: None of the nettlesome emails or nagging office politics in between shifts often faced by the average modern office worker trying to get ahead.
Still, Captain Buckhalter, who has a wife and a young daughter, echoed other crew members when he admitted that the setup could also be “tough at times” for families, including his own.
Crew members say they value knowing that their work, unlike more abstract service jobs, is essential to world trade. And average starting salaries for deckhand jobs are $55,000 a year (or about $26 an hour) and as high as $75,000 in places like the San Francisco area, with higher living costs.
The company also offers low-cost health, vision and dental care for employees, and a 401(k) plan with a company match. So the chief executive, Matt Godden, said in an interview that he didn’t feel that wages or benefits were a central reason that his company and competitors with similar offerings had struggled to hire.
“Right now a lot of companies are really hurting,” Captain Buckhalter said. “You kind of got a little gap here with the younger generation not really showing up.”
If the labor market, like any other, operates by supply and demand, managers within the maritime industry say the supply side of the nation’s education and training system is also at fault: It has given priority to the digital over the physical economy, putting what are often called “the jobs of the future” over those society still needs.
Mr. Harvey adds that his industry is also grappling with increased Coast Guard licensing requirements for skilled roles, like boat engineers or tankermen, who lead the loading and discharging of oil barges. The regulations help ensure physical and environmental safety standards, Mr. Harvey said, but reduce the already limited pool of adequately credentialed candidates.
Women remain a rare sight aboard. Some captains make the case that this stems from hesitance toward a life of bunking and sharing a bathroom with a crop of guys at sea — a self-reinforcing dynamic that company officials say they are working to alleviate.
“We actually do have women that work on the vessels!” said Kimberly Cartagena, the senior manager for marketing and public relations at Centerline. “Definitely not as much as men, but we do have a handful.”
Several economists and industry analysts suggested in interviews that another way for companies like Centerline to add crew members would be to expand their digital presence and do social media outreach. Mr. Godden, Centerline’s chief executive, said he remained wary.
“If you did something very simple, like you set up a TikTok account, and you sent somebody out every day to create varied little snippets, and you get viral videos of strong men pulling lines and big waves and big pieces of machinery,” Mr. Godden said, then a company would risk introducing an inefficient churn of young recruits who would “like the idea of being on a boat” but not be a fan of the unsexy “calluses” that come with the job.
But in the long term, he said, there is reason for optimism. He pointed to the recent establishment of the Maritime High School, which opened a year ago just south of the Seattle-Tacoma airport with its first ninth-grade class.
“I think their first class is looking to graduate a hundred people, and then they got goals of getting up to 300, 400 graduates a year,” Mr. Godden said. He has been meeting with the school’s leaders this fall and is convinced they will help create the next pipeline in the profession.
“Yes, labor shortages may increase or decrease depending upon how the market works — but I always have this sense that there’s always going to be this sort of built-in group of folks who cannot — just cannot — stand seeing themselves sitting at a desk for 30, 40, 50 years,” he said. “It’s this hands-on business almost like, you know, when you’re a kid and you’re playing with trucks or toys, and then you get to do it in the life-size version.”
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