The issue of where the next generation of inland mariners will come from has long been on the radar of everyone in the inland business. Recent trends in the economy have sharpened the urgency. The baby boomers’ retirement is in full swing, and was accelerated during the COVID lockdown. There are some reports of difficulty in recruiting and retaining new workers in the marine transportation industry, and it may get worse before it improves, according to Patrick Parsons, counsel and senior manager of government affairs for The American Waterways Operators, speaking at the Inland Marine Expo’s Workforce Development session.
Per the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, “water transportation workers” in the inland water transportation category had a mean annual wage of $75,560 as of May 2021. For all occupations, the mean annual wage as of May 2021 was $45,760, or about $30,000 less. We realize it isn’t quite that simple, and different careers in different areas of the waterways afford varying salaries, but the statistics are in line with what we have always believed to be true: it pays to work in this industry.
So, why are we discussing difficulties in recruiting talent in an industry that pays very well without requiring applicants take on student debt to land a job? The answer is hard to pinpoint. Many believe it is due to trends beyond low unemployment rates, but there is no doubt that low unemployment and lingering effects of COVID response are playing a role.
Parsons noted that younger workers today are seeking more definite pathways for advancement and growth. “It’s not enough just to tell them they can work their way up in the [towing] industry,” he said.
There are some things operators can do to be more attractive to employees. And the urgency of needing to find workers in some cases may lead to some positive changes. But we can all agree that this industry is a great place to work right now and only getting better.
It is time to cast a wide net and work even harder to showcase the many advantages of starting a career on or near the waterways. The industry has benefited from an amazing workforce over the years. We can’t let troubling trends detract from that.
Anyone who knows a capable person who would represent maritime well shouldn’t hesitate to let them know about the opportunities that await. You never know, that person might be a future towboat captain making well over six figures and earning the respect of an entire industry. They may be the next 40 under 40 award nominee. But even if not, they will have a chance for a fulfilling, well-paying career that makes an important contribution to our economy, environment and even our national security.
AWO recently debuted a great video, “The Tugboat, Towboat and Barge Industry: Careers that Make Waves,” highlighting the importance of the industry and the rewarding careers it has to offer. We encourage you to check it out and share. The video can be accessed here.