Nationwide labor shortage hits Alaska tugs

The nation’s labor shortage is particularly pronounced in Alaska, where the job vacancy rate is about double the national average, according to state labor data.

Health care, restaurants and hospitality are among the hardest hit industries. And in the Aleutian community of Unalaska, you can see him playing with the tug sailors.

Chris Iszler is the Captain of the Millennium Star, a 105ft tractor tug serving the oil and fishing industries. He is also regional manager of Centerline Logistics, a shipping company that owns the tug. Iszler said he started as a cook 27 years ago and worked his way up.

“Now I’m the captain and regional general manager of the operation here,” he said.

Stories like Iszler’s are pretty typical of the transportation industry. But right now, the industry is struggling to attract candidates for these entry-level jobs. Iszler says a position has been open for more than four months with only a few applicants.

A beginning cook can earn $80,000 working about six months a year; a very lucrative opportunity that does not require a university degree. Yet many of these positions remain vacant.

“We’ve run without a cook here the last two trips,” Iszler said. “It is not normal.”

Kimberly Cartagena works for Centerline, which owns the tugboat. They are among the top three oil shipping companies in the United States, with operations on the east and west coasts, the Gulf of Mexico, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Panama Canal. She says her business is feeling the pinch.

“No matter how many places we’ve posted, no matter how many places we go to recruit, there just aren’t people applying for tug jobs,” she said. .

This lack of candidates means a lack of crew, which can have profound consequences for the industry. This creates the risk that the boats have to stay put.

“If you don’t have enough crew, the ship can’t move,” Cartagena said.

And this can affect different industries. A jammed barge could result in grocery stores with empty shelves. Or cruise ships that can’t refuel.

Although Cartagena said that has yet to happen for its business, Centerline crew members are being forced to work longer hours, longer shifts and lead smaller crews.

“Although we have a shortage of people applying for the positions, we certainly have our long-serving employees who have been here for so long helping us through,” Cartagena said.

The Great Resignation is now old news. Millions of American workers have left their jobs since the start of the pandemic.

But a recent US Chamber of Commerce study suggests it’s more of a “big shakeup.” This is because most people who quit are rehired elsewhere.

Cartagena has noticed this trend. The tugboat lifestyle can be tough. The sailors sleep on the boat, which keeps them away from relations on land. She says many workers have left to take jobs where they can be closer to their families.

Captain of the Millennium Star Chris Iszler – who is based in Dutch Harbor – told this bypass story about a former crew member who took a job in Hawaii.

“They’re so short of employees that they had to pull him out of the race in Hawaii and bring him here in Dutch to replace him, so they had a full team,” Iszler said. “So it’s on his days off??? and he’s here in Alaska instead of being home with his family.”

People can enter the industry with relatively little experience. Someone fresh out of high school can graduate as a merchant seaman and embark on a career. And that kind of accessibility makes the Millennium Star team more creative.

“We started going through our friends. Like, ‘Hey man, do you want a fucking job?'” Iszler laughed.

And sometimes it pays off. He said the captain of another ship liked the work ethic of the person renovating his ship’s bathroom, so he offered her a job.

“We’re going through the hiring process with him now,” Iszler said.

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