Washington State Ferries pushes for 'cultural shift' to solve worker shortage

Facing a shortage of engine room workers, Washington State Ferries is looking to drum up enrollment at the Seattle Maritime Academy.

The state's ferry system has been hampered by delays and cancelations for months due to crew shortages. Washington State Ferries is looking to recruit engine room workers, roughly a quarter of whom come from the Seattle Central College's Maritime Academy.

"I know nothing about engines and how engines work, and it sparked me to come here," said Ben Stienbrueck, a student at the academy.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: More sailings canceled as Washington State Ferries grapples with crew shortage

Engine room workers handle everything 'under the hood' on the ferries. They manage the engine, propulsion systems, steering gears and everything in between, and make repairs as needed.

"I actually got into this because my uncle is a commercial fisherman, and I've been commercial fishing for 10 years." said Stienbrueck.

But, this is exactly the problem, according to school leadership.

"For the longest time, the maritime industry relied on, ‘My dad sailed, my uncle sailed,'" said Dale Batemen, dean of the academy, "that doesn't work anymore."

The ferry system let go of 140 out of 1,800 staffers who did not get vaccinated under the vaccine mandate, and there have not been any hiring bonuses to become a state worker since then. WSF is a major donor to the academy, and now they are looking at a "cultural shift" for the maritime industry to help fill out their ranks again.

"Engine room employees are a part of ferry operations that a lot of people don’t know exist, yet they’re absolutely vital to ensure the largest ferry system in North America can safely serve the people of Washington," said WSF Chief of Staff Nicole McIntosh. "The jobs can pay more than $60 per hour and once on board there is a clear career path."

Washington State Ferries says anyone interested in joining their team should tour the Maritime Academy. Their next tour and information session is at 6 p.m. on Tuesday.

"There’s huge demand for merchant mariners, not just at Washington State Ferries, but across the entire industry," said academy Associate Dean Dale Bateman. "We offer a fast-track program to train the next generation of mariners. Students in the marine engineering technology unit can graduate and be on the water in as little as a year."

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