By Mark Cardwell

Recent federal funding cuts to sector councils have knocked the wind out of the sails of efforts aimed at addressing manpower training and retention in the marine industry, stakeholders say. Now they hope that alternative methods will be found to solve what is fast becoming a major challenge for the marine industry in general and for Canadian-flagged vessels in particular.

“The federal government’s decision to get out of the sector council business was a very frustrating experience,” said Bruce Bowie, President of the Canadian Shipowners Association (CSA).  “It basically wasted two years of concerted efforts by a lot of people.”

According to Bowie, several marine partners, including labour groups, training schools and Canadian companies with Canadian-flagged vessels like Canada Steamship Lines and Algoma, had been working with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) in an effort to establish a national sector council that would lead development of a human resource and training needs assessment plan for the marine industry.

Those hopes sank, however, with the federal government’s decision to phase out funding to all 30 sector councils it currently supports by March 2013, and to refrain from funding any new ones.

“It was quite a disappointment,” said Karen Watt, Vice-President of Algoma Central Corporation. “We put a lot of hope in the creation (of a new marine sector council).”

According to Bowie, the government’s decision has left the marine industry in a lurch.

He said the results of several studies, together with anecdotal evidence from Canadian shipowners, suggest that roughly half of the 93,000 employees in water transport and related service industries across the country are nearing retirement age.

“I think it’s fair to say that the majority of ship workers are now over 50,” Bowie added. “The manpower situation isn’t critical right now, but will certainly become a big issue in our industry very soon.”

Watt agreed.

She said that it is “always a big challenge” for Algoma, which employs some 2,000 people, to find both licensed and unlicensed crew members.

“It’s a problem for all ranks, but especially for marine engineers (and) senior officers,” said Watt.

She added that the problem is particularly acute when it comes to find relief crews to take over from over-taxed regular crews in need of vacation during the sailing season.

For both Watt and Bowie, the solution lies in the recruitment and training of qualified individuals in an industry that both say offers good jobs with great benefits.

In addition to the fact that seafarers are away from home for long stretches, they said a number of jurisdictional issues hinder efforts aimed at attracting and retaining workers to the industry.

One big hurdle, said Bowie, is the fact that the marine industry is federally regulated – but the onus falls on the provinces to set up and run training facilities and programs.

“You run into all kinds of issues because of that,” said Bowie.

He pointed, for example, to differences in tuition fees between provinces and the need for students to live in the relatively remote communities where some marine training schools are located.

Bowie also lamented the fact that while federal employment programs will fund 2-year programs, they do not fund 3-year programs like marine navigation and marine engineers.

“There are a lot of barriers that discourage people from making the commitment to go into our industry,” he said.

For her part, Watt called the federal-provincial relationship regarding maritime manpower regulations and training “a mismatch with a lot of cracks that our needs and concerns fall through.”

When asked for comments about the manpower challenges being faced in the marine industry, a Transport Canada official responded in an email, saying that “trained, qualified and competent ship officers and crew operating Canadian ships is Transport Canada’s responsibility and is addressed in both the Marine Personnel Regulations under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001, and the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers.

“Recruitment of individuals interested in a career at sea, however, is the domain of vessel operators, crewing agents and job employment sites, as well as the unions that represent seafarers.”

The ministry also recommended that “questions on recruiting challenges be directed to HRSDC, and organizations such as the Seafarer’s International Union of Canada, Shipping Federation of C95

anada, CSA, and Canadian Merchant Service Guild.”

Now that the sector council initiative is dead, Bowie said marine stakeholders are refocusing their efforts on alternative solutions that will enable them to air their concerns and reach decision-makers.

One possibility, he said, is to join existing councils such as the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council, the Pacific Gateway Skills Council, or provincial initiatives like Quebec’s Comité sectoriel de main-d’œuvre de l’industrie maritime, which represents and promotes the interests of both ship and shore workers in the marine industry.

“We are facing manpower problems all along the St. Lawrence,” said Claude Mailloux, Executive Director of the provincial agency.

The problem is compounded in Quebec, he added, because both the government and mining companies “are pouring money” into advertisements to recruit students and workers in the skilled trades related to Plan Nord, the province’s ambitious multi-billion-dollar development plan for isolated northern areas.

“We don’t have the resources needed to counter that,” said Mailloux.  “And ships don’t have the visibility that, say, trucks on the highway do.  When kids see a ship go by on the river, they can’t visualize themselves on-board.”

He added that the marine community in Quebec is trying to develop ad campaigns and initiatives to turn that tide. “We want to change the traditional image that many people have of seafarers being away from home in rough seas and working alongside roughnecks,” he said. “The reality is that jobs in the industry pay well, conditions are great, and workers get a lot of time off to enjoy the fruits of their labour.”