The May 20 meeting of members of the Mid-America Regional Exam Center workgroup (MAREC) with top officials of the National Maritime Center was remarkable for several reasons.
Chief among them was the level of candor displayed by the NMC. In the past, navigation industry officials and committee members have often complained about opaqueness and lack of communication from the NMC, but that was not the case this time. Anne Seither, deputy director of the NMC, and Jim Stewart, head of NMC-1 or the REC Operations & Oversight Division, were forthcoming about the difficulties facing the NMC due to the government shutdown that lasted from December 22, 2018, until January 25.
While Seither was not offering excuses, the audience could feel her frustration as she could not help mentioning several times the NMC’s outdated IT system that goes back to the 1990s. It is simply not up to the job it is tasked with.
Unlike modern IT systems, she said, it cannot capture much data that would be useful in improving and updating operations. Much internal communication, as well as communication with mariners, still happens by paper. The NMC website does have an online chat system, but Seither said that mariner applications have about a 50 percent “failure rate,” meaning they are not complete and require further information. Communications to get that information are still laborious and time-consuming.
Other problems include the chronic breakdown of the machines that print the completed merchant mariner document; according to Seither, two of the three machines are out of action on any given day. Now is the time for the center to be planning for the next generation of machines.
Seither spoke of intensive efforts to recruit new personnel, but the skill sets and maritime experience needed are very specific. “It’s not easy to get people with the requisite experience to move to Martinsburg,” she said.
But if its IT systems were modernized, the NMC would not need those extra people. In a modern online system, the form itself would automatically notify the mariner filling it out when an item was missing; all information would be automatically updated in real time. No humans would need to intervene. Recruiting more employees, while helpful in the short term, should not be the answer.
Several MAREC members went out of their way to stress the cooperation and helpfulness of the NMC staff when they need to interact. The solution needs to come from higher up. The Coast Guard often talks about the importance of the maritime transportation system and the men and women to make it work. Its spending on the NMC, which credentials those men and women, needs to reflect that rhetoric.
That means Congress must be made aware of the NMC’s needs and the Coast Guard leadership must advocate for them and make them a priority. They are as important as new icebreakers. There is simply no excuse for the NMC lacking a modern IT system that would speed up its work and better serve the mariners who make freight move on the waterways.