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National workforce shortages strain public services; ferries, healthcare ...

Across the country and across economic sectors, the challenge to recruit and retain workers has been acute. For state agencies, labor market trends have been disruptive. Ferries need tending. Hospitals need staffing. Without enough workers, state services suffer.

Turnover within state government leaped from a five-year average of 14.8% to 20.3% in the fiscal year 2023, tracking national trends. The governor’s proposed 2023–25 budget will strengthen the state workforce and will include targeted increases for specialized or high-turnover positions.

State agencies like the Department of Social and Health Services and Washington State Ferries especially are feeling the effects of a competitive labor market, and they are working overtime to attract the next generation of workers.

Skilled young seafarers few and far between

At the helm of Washington State Ferries (WSF) MV Chimacum is Greg Sugdan, a longtime ferry captain. He’s dodged rogue crab pots and other obstacles to safely deliver many thousands of Washingtonians to their destinations. He’s also among the near-half of WSF vessel workers above 55 and considering retirement. He won’t be easy to replace.

The entire global maritime industry is facing a crunch — there are few qualified seamen and engineers to keep propellers spinning. The United Nations has even expressed alarm as seafarer shortages have slowed global commerce.

WSF operates the largest public ferry system in the country. Its 21 ferries carry more than 24 million people a year to 19 terminals in Washington, but on-time performance has dwindled due to a diminished workforce. Similar circumstances have presented in AlaskaBritish ColumbiaMaine, and New York — regional ferry systems have been hampered by scarce reserve employees. Boats must be staffed to Coast Guard requirements to sail.

Help might be slow to arrive — many vacancies take more than a year to fill.

The U.S. Coast Guard requires months of sea time and training to certify as a licensed deck officer, for example. Retaining present staff is essential to the timely operation of state ferries, and recruiting younger workers is important for the future.

WSF Twitter post

#ICYMI: We created 2 programs that encourage our current employees to take the necessary courses & exams to obtain a mates’ credential. 12 of our able-bodied sailors recently completed mate training at our local @mitags_maritime. https://wsdot.wa.gov/travel/washington-state-ferries/about-us/weekly-update

The Seattle Maritime Academy has produced many of WSF’s current workers. The program produces about 36 graduates annually. After completing the one-year program, graduates may earn $80,000 or more right away. Many graduates earn six-figure incomes just a few years after graduation.

“For many young people I talk to, it’s a foreign concept to work on a boat,” said Dale Bateman, dean of the Seattle Maritime Academy. “Some think it won’t pay well — that cannot be further from the truth. There’s good money in maritime careers and working aboard ferries.”

Unlike most jobs at sea, WSF workers sleep in their own beds every night. They come home at night to raise their families and don’t spend months at sea as is common in transport shipping.

State ferry workers will receive wage increases each of the next two fiscal years, and larger increases for workers in hard-to-fill jobs. Labor agreements also include provisions to help deck officers advance their careers and occupy higher positions in the future.

A Washington State Ferries vessel sails towards the sunset

Ferry jobs are dream opportunities for those that can’t stand to sit down all day. “On deck — that’s the best office in the world,” said Ian Sterling, WSF Public Information Officer.