From worker shortage to Wi-Fi: BC Ferries’ new CEO answers burning boat questions

From worker shortage to Wi-Fi: BC Ferries' new CEO answers burning boat questions
Car alarms, the return of the buffet and Wi-Fi. Rob Shaw asks about it all in this one-on-one interview with the new BC Ferries CEO.

In January, Nicolas Jimenez made headlines by resigning as CEO of ICBC to take the helm of BC Ferries, an often-discussed topic of conversation, controversy and criticism for many living on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands — some of whom commute on the company’s vessels daily.

His leadership transition was widely discussed and anticipated given the significance of BC Ferries to Islanders, and came following a turbulent pandemic period that saw staffing shortages and increased cancellations.

CHEK News political reporter Rob Shaw sat down with Jimenez to ask the questions every passenger wants to know in an exclusive interview. Read a condensed version of the interview below:

Talk to me about ferry cancellations and staffing shortages. We’ve been hearing about it for months, there’s been a recruitment drive. There’s an attempt under your leadership to fix this. Have we fixed it to be hired enough people? Are we still gonna see cancelled sailings? Where are we at there?

I think two things are true. I think we have learned a lot from the lessons of last summer, which was a very challenging summer. So we’ve done a lot of different things in terms of how we crew and staff, we’ve got 700 people that we’ve hired, we’re still looking to hire about 100 more. We’ve changed the terms and conditions around how you have employment with us. So we don’t have seasonal staff anymore. We’re going casual, we’re guaranteeing hours, we’re doing as much as we can to make sure that we have enough people to staff the vessels. Now, I think that’s great, and what I know is that we’re still going to have a challenging summer, will it be last summer? No. But the issues that we’re dealing with here in British Columbia are the same as those in other ferry models south of the border, those, you know, who are running ferries in Europe, there’s a global shortage of Mariners and labour markets as tight as the ones that we have right now. We’re struggling to find the people, we need to get into these jobs. So we’re going to keep working at it. We didn’t get into this problem overnight. And we’re not going to get out of it overnight. But I’m pleased that the team has learned a lot from last summer. And we’ll be doing as much as we can to avoid some of that experience. But I’ve got to warn people, it’s not gonna be perfect, but it is going to be better.

Is there a point in time where you feel that BC Ferries will have hired enough people and enough licensed professionals to avoid major cancellations?

I want to say yes. And I know if another ferry operator were here having this conversation, we’d basically have the same challenge, which is we have to produce more mariners in this global community. It’s a global industry. We’re all competing for the same talent. We have reciprocal arrangements with other countries: Ukraine, the UK, Philippines and other places. And we’re all going after the same highly skilled, highly desirable talent. So, we just need more people in the workforce today. And right now demographics are such that that that’s just not where we’re at.

Should an average person planning their summer and thinking about going on BC Ferries be worried?

If I were going to be travelling on BC Ferries this summer, I would be, today, making reservations. And then I would be flexible, we’re going to need everybody to be a little bit more flexible than they might otherwise be. But if you have a reservation, we’re going to do our absolute best to honour that reservation and to make sure that the experience is one that, you know, will help you get to where you want to go.

Let’s go through the buffet. People love the buffet, when is that going to reopen?

It’s a complicated question. Let me start by saying we love the buffet. We love that there’s a small but a very, very loyal following. The challenge with the buffet is the operational context we find ourselves in 2023. So if we were to reopen the buffets, as they were, we’d need about 80 new people. That is a very complicated thing. When we’re running, as we were talking about earlier, a system, we’re trying to get people into the very basics of what we need for maintenance roles, and deckhands and bridge officers and terminal staff.

So we’re looking at what do we do with these beautiful spaces. Because the buffets on those routes, they’re gorgeous spaces. How do we basically bring kind of a modern offering that reflects where we are at in 2023? And what I will be able to say is later in the spring, we’ll have a view as to what that looks like.

One thing I know for sure is that we’re going to be getting customer input into the sort of the future design of that space. Because like you said, customers are incredibly loyal to, even though the crowds are small, who used it, the ones who did, loved it.

We can put a robot on Mars but can’t get Wi-Fi to work between Victoria and Vancouver, is that a fixable problem?

It’s something we’re looking at, but it’s not a fix that will come anytime soon. I think we have to do sort of some of the basic things in our business right now, which is making sure that we can staff our vessels, we can make sure that they deploy on time, that we minimize the mechanical issues that happen. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not looking at available options, people would be surprised to hear that it’s a little bit more complicated and a little bit more expensive than they might think so we need to we need a solution that’s both sustainable and affordable. Because let’s face it, nobody wants, you know, fares to increase because people are, you know, using Wi-Fi on the vessels, we need something sustainable.

Every single ferry the damn car alarms go off. Can ferries do anything about that? Or is this just a reality of how this works?

Well, I think I think two things are true. It is a reality of how vessels work, and how cars work in terms of their inherent design. One thing we are going to be trying this summer is working with customers as they enter the terminal to provide them information to say, ‘hey, you should think about your car alarm because it’s you know, certain especially with certain vehicles, it may go off and if it goes off, it’s really stressful for pets if you’re leaving a pet in a vehicle on one of the the upper decks or if your customer you chosen to stay in your vehicle,’ I hope they don’t. I always want to see them on our on our upper decks. But if they decide to stay, it’s annoying, let’s face it. So we want people to be more aware of the decisions that they can make to deactivate alarms for the you know the duration of the voyage, your vessel your vehicle is safe on our vessels.

Transport Canada won’t let people stay in their vehicle in the bottom deck. Is that just settled or is there any way we can push the back and let people sleep in there?

Well, I’d encourage you to contact Transport Canada and have a conversation with them.

There’s a Period Promise program that is going through publicly-run corporations. Provincial government supports it, making menstrual products free. Still $1 for a tampon on BC Ferries, can we fix that?

We’re looking at it. I mean, I think it’s a really important initiative. And I love that other entities and institutions are embracing that. We’re looking at that and will hopefully be able to say more shortly.

What about reservations? Are we going to ever reach a point where reservations are free, because people making them help the ferry system handle its load? And we ding the people who show up 15 minutes before a sailing just to drive on?

I think we’re going to need to look at how we — and it’s not just whether they’re free or not — but what percentage of a sailing is reservable versus non-reservable.

Those are delicate conversations, because I know some people want the flexibility to be able to make ad hoc and in the moment decisions to travel. I think a majority of the others would prefer to have some certainty and take some of the stress out of coming to a terminal. I think we’ll be looking at that as we go forward. And I think we’re gonna be looking at quite frankly, and we have a project under way to do this work is how do we make that experience as you arrive into a terminal, a little bit more efficient, and a little bit less stressful? So right now, if you come into some of our busier terminals, particularly say, for example, in Horseshoe Bay, you can experience complicated traffic scenarios, there’s technology that we can invest in, that can create a different way of entering into the terminal being arranged into the proper lane and then loaded on to a vessel.

It’s not an insignificant investment, but it’s one that I think we are looking at, because it will have a big uplift, not just on the efficiency of how we operate, but the customer experience. And the stress levels associated with actually planning and taking a trip.

People in the minor routes, will they get reservations one day?

I think it’s there’s a very inherent difference on a minor route versus a major route, obviously. So whatever we do, we’d have to work very closely with the local communities. We have very active ferry advisory committees on all of those minor routes on all of the islands. And whatever we do in the future, around pricing, and certainly around reservations would have to be done in concert with local communities.

You went from the crown insurance agency, that a lot of people grumble about, to the BC Ferries-quasi crown agency, that a lot of people grumble about. These are too tough jobs. What makes you want to do this? And are you looking forward to the the publicity that kind of comes with running the ferry service when everybody has an opinion on what should be done?

I joined principally because I believe in the purpose of this company. It’s to connect British Columbians to the people in places they love and and I think it’s an entirely compelling purpose, and what’s even more compelling is the fact that everybody wants this system and this company to be successful.

Nobody’s sitting around saying, ‘geez, I hope they fail. I hope the system doesn’t work as well as it should.’ They want it to be great. And so I bring a certain set of skills and experiences to help with that from, you know, thinking about people to change strategy transformation. And if I can put all of that energy into that purpose and into that core belief that the system needs to be not just good, but it needs to be great. I think anyone would want to sign up for that I shared it.

Watch a 15-minute video of the interview below:



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