Recent multiple disruptions to the maritime supply chain by drought, war and geopolitical unrest have drawn more urgent attention than ever to the importance of the merchant marine and keeping sea lanes open. Among industry observers, though, one question looms above all others: Where will the next generation of merchant mariners come from? That concern was partly addressed in provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act recently signed by President Joe Biden.
The NDAA includes some welcome increases in authorizations. The Federal Ship Financing Program (Title XI), which provides federally guaranteed loans for shipbuilding, got a slight increase of 1.334 percent. But the Port Infrastructure Development Program administered by the Maritime Administration was increased by 135.63 percent from FY2023 to $500 million, and the Small Shipyard Grant Program was authorized for a 50 percent increase to $30 million.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said, “This bill invests in modernizing America’s ports and shipyards that play a central role in moving American products around the country and world.” The PIDP and Small Shipyard programs, in particular, have been important sources of funds for modernizing and expanding the capabilities of smaller inland ports and shipyards.
The latter program punches far above its weight in its beneficial effects. Since its establishment under the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009, the Small Shipyards Program has awarded $303 million to nearly 350 shipyards in 32 states and territories throughout the United States. America’s 300 small shipyards that construct and repair marine vessels are responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of more than 40,000 military, safety and commercial vessels in the American flag fleet. Although to date we’ve seen Small Shipyard Grants used mostly for capital improvements or equipment purchases at inland yards, they may also be used for training as well as construction purposes, according to MarAd.
Increasing shipbuilding capacity and output increases the urgent need for people to take roles in shipyards and other maritime support industries, as well as to staff the new vessels. The NDAA increases authorizations to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point by 50.76 percent to $198.5 million, while another $66.58 million is earmarked for the state maritime academies.
“[The act] makes critical investments in growing our maritime workforce by doubling educational stipends for State Maritime Academy students and expanding career opportunities for advancement into high-wage maritime jobs,” Cantwell said.
These NDAA provisions help keep up with the need to foster interest in and recruitment to maritime careers and to train those interested.
Now comes work in Congress to actually fund these authorizations via the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill.