Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

West Coast Workforce Development


A crew practice closed loop communication in one BC Ferries' three Simulation Training Centers. Photo courtesy of BC Ferries.

Training the next generation of mariners and marine company employees is an ever-evolving process as technologies and training regimens grow and change.

BC Ferries (BCF) hires approximately 400 positions each year for seasonal work. Recruitment takes place every spring. Potential employees are given a self-study exam – part of the company's Standardized Education and Assessment (SEA) program – to complete as a pre-screening tool. "We include this exam in our pre-hire for entry level positions like deckhand, terminal attendant and engine room assistant," says Captain Jamie Marshall, Vice President of Fleet Operations.

If a potential employee passes the test with an 80 percent or higher mark, he will move into phase two of a four-phase training process. BCF initiated the SEA program about nine years ago in an effort to achieve more consistent levels of knowledge across the operation by taking a Blended Learning approach to training. A major benefit of the SEA program is that it is entirely web-based so trainees can access materials day or night at work or at home.

"It's also modularized so if you're on a specific vessel or a specific route or terminal, there are different modules you have to complete," explains Capt. Marshall. "For example, if a candidate is cleared to work as a deckhand on the Spirit of Vancouver Island but will be doing SEA training on the Coastal Celebration, he would only do the modules relevant to that particular ship and its routines and equipment."

Another benefit of the SEA program is that the trainers are "detached", meaning they are not part of the normal crew complement, which keeps, for instance, the bridge team focused on their jobs instead of simultaneously training while executing their duties. "Out of 4,500 employees, we have almost 500 part-time trainers now," says Capt. Marshall. The ratio of trainer-to-trainee is set, but somewhat flexible depending on requirements.

In phase two, students are provided training by expert trainers using a Learning Management System (LMS) generated agenda and associated materials. Also, a practical consolidation phase is included, where the trainee takes on the actual work duties under the supervision of the employee who is cleared in the position.

In phase three, the student is required to pass various assessments, including a written exam, an oral exam and practical demonstrations of his competence. These assessments are managed by a different SEA Trainer than the one who delivered the SEA material. This is done to eliminate any trainer bias and thereby maximize objectivity.

Career Progression is the fourth and final phase of SEA and includes skill enhancement activities in the newly cleared position, followed by career advancement learning objectives for the next step up the ladder. The Career Navigator is new software custom built to manage this phase and enables collaboration and transparency between employee and supervisor. Big Data is a huge piece of the Career Navigator as it will enable various levels within BC Ferries to run reports and enable appropriate resourcing, as well as assist in Succession Management.

The key pieces to the Learning Management System are accessibility as well as sustainability. The SEA program is hosted on the Internet and is available on the BCF Academy intranet site. Employees can access the system from anywhere and trainers can continuously improve the training material as the vessel comes out of a refit or major modification.


In 2008, Vigor partnered with Portland Community College to open a training center at Vigor's Swan Island Shipyard in order to create a pipeline of workers with the right welding skills for Shipyard work. The company provides space and donates materials, while the college administers the course, including admissions and issues certificates. Vigor provided input to help adapt the college's existing welding curriculum for Shipyard work.

In 2013, Vigor partnered with South Seattle Community College (SSCC) to open a training center at its Harbor Island Shipyard in Seattle, and in 2014, the company began working with the Alaska Workforce Investment Board and the University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan Campus to create an industry-led training program tied into its Ketchikan yard. All three programs provide the specific training necessary to help students land family-wage jobs at Vigor shipyards or other area employers.

Sue Haley, Executive Vice President of Human Resources, reports there has been good feedback from community workforce development groups. Vigor built the SSCC training center and the two entities worked on the curriculum together. "There is broad-based training, such as using a forklift and basic shop math," says Haley. "In addition to being trained as welders, students are drug screened before they go into the program. They have to pass an assessment to get in, then they attend a six-month program. The placement rate is 88 percent. And that's with Vigor and other companies."

Instructors at each of Vigor's training centers were originally Vigor employees. The company also hosts job fairs for maritime and non-maritime employers. Each program, however, is set up differently as relevant to the population it serves. For instance, in Ketchikan, the full-time population is about 8,000 people, and the only way to access the region is by boat or plane. "We have to do a lot of building of non-skilled workers in that community and train in conjunction with the University of Alaska," says Haley.

The SSCC sees a lot of unemployed people, some with only high school diplomas. After students finish the course, they are deemed highly employable and are followed by staff at the Center as they make the transition to the workplace. "I find people are motivated and grateful to have good paying jobs and benefits," says Haley.

Vigor also hosts tours for high school students at all its yards, and accepts interns each year from high school vocational programs. An example is the Pathways to Manufacturing program provided by the nonprofit group Impact Northwest. Interns are also placed at formal maritime academies such as the US Merchant Marine Academy and the California Maritime Academy. "We're also working with Portland public schools to start an additional technical education program with Roosevelt High School and anticipate we'll have a connection to an intern program there," adds Haley.

In-House Training

Nichols Brothers Boat Builders' (NBBB) long-time skilled tradesmen have been teaching the next generation of boat builders for the company for the past 52 years.

Three years ago, the company's in-house training program became a Washington State recognized apprenticeship program that ensures NBBB employees will meet and exceed NBBB's expectations and regulatory demands. "When these guys finish this three-year program, they could probably go anywhere in the world and get a first-class job," says Matt Nichols, Executive Vice President. "It's a lot of testing, a lot of on-the-job training and classroom training we do every Tuesday and Thursday night."

Practical instruction is supported with information on a wide variety of topics that include learning about the maritime industry as well as all parts of a vessel, marine terminology and trade-specific components. "It has been extremely effective," says Nichols. "I never have to worry about the quality of the vessels. We have generations of great craftsmen. I'm very proud of them."

Seattle's Western Towboat develops its new staff from within by first identifying people who align with the company culture and who are interested in working at the company long term. Qualified trainees go through the two-year Workboat Mate program at Seattle's Pacific Maritime Institute (PMI), spending half their time training on Western Towboat vessels and the other half in class at PMI. Upon successful graduation, students achieve a Mate's license and will have the chance to further advance through the company.

Western Towboat also has a tuition reimbursement program for employee professional development. If an employee stays with the company for at least three years after he obtains his license, the loan is forgiven. In 2015, Western Towboat paid out more than $35,000 in tuition loans. "Our best people come up through that pathway," says Jeff Slesinger, Safety & Training director for Western Towboat and owner of Delphi Maritime, a marine training consultancy. "We build our own boats and maintain them. They see value in the state of the equipment here and take pride in it."

Slesinger observes that training the millennial generation has its challenges, for all marine companies. "We're in such a different knowledge context with the Internet and other modes of learning," he says. "The generation coming up now is used to instant access to knowledge. Mentors have to understand you can't hang onto knowledge like the peers in my generation did. There is a lot of train-the-trainer training, especially to make it effective for onboard training from the trainer's side."

Slesinger has incorporated this dynamic approach into all of his training programs. He has also consulted with various marine company human resources departments about how to recruit, retain and train the millennial generation who prefer a work/life balance approach to their jobs.

He believes that apprentice-style training – which is a hybrid of classroom and on-the-job training – offers the most effective outcomes. This allows trainees to feel more confident about their skills. But it's also necessary for companies to invest in several workforce development pathways, as one will not supply all needs.

Marine company trainers also have to distinguish between content (training materials) and methodology (training instruction delivery), Slesinger asserts. Content might change slightly between companies but the methodologies can be vastly different. "To make an effective transfer of knowledge, you have to find some kind of learning context where it can be delivered, received and understood," says Slesinger. "For instance, millennials are much more visually oriented. They expect knowledge to be delivered quickly and in bit sized pieces."

Federal Funding

A new marine engineering apprenticeship program has received a $5 million American Apprenticeship Innovation Grant from the US Department of Labor. Foss Maritime recently announced a partnership to establish the curriculum, and to sponsor several applicants each year. The Grant has been awarded to Seattle Central College, Seattle Maritime Academy, the Maritime Institute of Technology & Graduate Studies-Pacific Maritime Institute and the Workboat Academy.

It's expected that over the next five years, more than 150 engineers will be trained in Seattle and Baltimore. The engineering program will mirror Workboat Academy's deck apprenticeship. Engineering cadets will blend time in the classroom with simulation, and apply what they learn to work aboard vessels. The candidate's license will depend on the type of partner company vessels and the routes where cadets gain sea time as an apprentice.

"Working together, we aim to train hundreds, if not thousands, of new apprentices in the maritime and advanced manufacturing fields," said Scott Merritt, Senior Vice President, Harbor Services, in a statement.


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