On March 4, President Donald Trump signed an executive order easing the process for veterans to transition into the merchant marine. The order is titled, “Supporting the Transition of Active Duty Service Members and Military Veterans into the Merchant Marine.”
White House aide Peter Navarro told media, “I think the whole point here is to leverage their experience that [veterans] gain and education they gain in the military to move directly into the merchant marine and do it in a way where the fees and costs are minimized.”
The Coast Guard already runs a “Military to Mariner” program to help transitioning servicemembers get credentialed for the merchant marine, but the new order goes further. It directs the military services to identify any training and experience that can be credited toward merchant mariners’ licenses, to be determined by the National Maritime Center (NMC).
It directs the Department of Homeland Security to find money to help military personnel who want to pursue careers in the merchant marine pay not only for licensing fees to the NMC, but for Transportation Worker Identification Credentials (TWIC) as well.
It directs the NMC itself to “take all necessary and appropriate actions to provide for the waiver of fees for active duty service members, if a waiver is authorized and appropriate,” or to see whether the services will pay the fees.
Many supporters of this new order think in terms of military sealift support on the oceans. In November, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated there were about 11,770 qualified and available mariners as of June 2017–about 2,000 short of what it said would be needed for a drawn-out military effort. Mark Buzby, administrator of the Maritime Administration at the Department of Transportation, told Congress in 2018 that he was concerned about a decreasing number of mariners qualified to operate large ships. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., as well as other maritime academies, graduate more than 1,000 officers each year, but Buzby said that fell short of the number of mariners needed to serve in senior-level positions. Buzby was at the White House on March 4 when Trump signed the new order.
Rhetorically, no recent president has supported merchant mariners like Trump. A press release by Navarro mentioned the World War II service of merchant mariners, which went unrecognized for decades even though merchant mariners had a higher battle casualty rate than any of the uniformed services except the Marines.
When Trump spoke about his infrastructure plans, with working towboats on the Ohio River as a backdrop in 2017, an image that went viral, industry advocates rejoiced at the spotlight the president’s bully pulpit drew toward the inland waterways in particular. That moment resulted in some good coverage and publicity in mainstream media outlets for issues important to our industry.
A PriceWaterhouse study conducted for the Transportation Institute (covered in this issue) shows that direct and indirect maritime employment grew by 30 percent from 2011 through 2016.
Veterans bring valuable training, experience, and work habits. Many have already experienced the watch structure and discipline that working on a vessel requires, not least the attention to safety. According to the Military Sealift Command, 40 percent of their civilian workers are veterans.
The new order’s effects won’t be immediately felt; it will take a year for information to be delivered to the NMC by the services. But it comes at a very opportune moment. On the rivers, a generation of captains is reaching retirement age. The executive order is not only an appropriate way to honor veterans for their service and experience, it could expand the recruitment pipeline for both the blue-water and brown-water sectors of our industry.