‘We can’t train people fast enough’: Marine industry struggles as a generation of sailors retire

Photo credit: Nicholas Pescod/CHEK News

BC Ferries cancellations due to staff shortages continued Tuesday with two early morning sailings along the Nanaimo-Horseshoe Bay route called off due to what the company called a “crewing issue.”

The cancellations follow multiple other BC Ferries made over the weekend, and as the Easter long weekend looms, some employees say the cancellations will continue.

“It’s going to get more difficult. We are expecting more cancellations than what currently has been announced,” said Glen, a BC Ferries crew member whose identity CHEK News is protecting.

“It’s going to be a frustrating weekend for passengers.”

READ MORE: ‘It’s going to be a frustrating weekend’: BC Ferries cancellations expected to continue as company struggles to hire

BC Ferries says that one of the biggest challenges to their workforce is that an entire generation of baby boomers are retiring. And while frustrating for Islanders, is part of a broader trend within the marine industry worldwide.

“It’s now affecting customers, but it’s been affecting sailors for decades, and it’s only getting worse every year,” said Andrew Liebmann, interim dean of BCIT’s Marine College.

“We can’t train people fast enough for the local industry,” said Leibmann.

Liebmann says the industry has been slow to adapt to its aging workforce.

“The baby boomers got into it at relatively young ages and stayed there for a long time, so there weren’t a lot of jobs for a period of time, and people didn’t go into the industry. This means that there are fewer people behind them that are trained and experienced and ready to take over,” said Liebmann.

And captains, can’t be created overnight. It takes 10-15 years of education and experience to captain a vessel and hundreds of thousands of dollars towards that education. BCIT’s marine programs see 25-30 graduates per year.

And, there’s always the sacrifice of being at sea.

“There was a time where if you went to sea you came back with your pockets full of money and were able to really enjoy your time off. But the wages have not kept pace with expenses and there are other jobs ashore that are pretty attractive compared to what they used to be,” said Liebmann.

But, there is good news. Liebmann says he’s seeing the industry change, that some companies are trying to lure talent with higher wages, better vacation, and shorter stints at sea.

“When I was a third mate on tankers, I was working six months on, two months off, now third mates are working 10 weeks on, 10 weeks off,” said Liebmann.

Industry experts don’t believe there’s a ‘quick fix’, but do believe the federal government’s injection of millions of dollars into the recruitment of Indigenous people and women into the industry through the Oceans Protection Plan in 2019, did help.

“I can say In those sponsorships, everybody who wanted a job at sea is working at sea right now,” said Liebmann. “I think funding and scholarships from both government and industry is going to help keep people coming in.”

In 2020 the federal government announced plans to develop a “Blue Economy Strategy.” Public engagement ended in June of 2021.

“The Government of Canada looks forward to releasing a Blue Economy Strategy in due course,” said Fisheries and Oceans Canada in a statement on March 11, 2022.

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Kori SidawayKori Sidaway

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