By Larry Persily
Unless the Alaska Marine Highway System can recruit enough workers by March 1 to restaff the unused Columbia, officials said the largest vessel in the fleet would remain tied to the dock for a third summer in a row.
“Management is doing everything we can” to recruit and staff up, Katherine Keith, the ferry system’s newly hired change management director, told legislators last week.
As of the first week of January, the state ferry system was short more than 350 workers — about half of the staffing level necessary — to operate the full summer schedule of seven ships, including the Columbia, serving Southeast, Prince William Sound and Southwest Alaska.
Almost three-quarters of the vacancies were for entry-level stewards aboard the ships, department officials reported in a presentation at the House Finance Subcommittee for the Transportation Department budget on Feb. 8.
The crew shortage comes from layoffs as ships were tied up to save money, and from resignations exceeding new hires the past three years. While the ferry system hired about 190 new employees 2019-2021, it had more than 230 resignations and about 45 retirements. Half of those resignations occurred in 2019, the first year of the Gov. Mike Dunleavy administration when deep budget cuts to the ferry system led to reduced service levels.
The Columbia, which can accommodate 50% more vehicles than the next largest ship in the fleet, has been held out of service to save money since fall 2019. The ferry system needs to reassemble a crew to put the ship back into operation. That will require a minimum of 125 new hires by March 1, to allow time for training and Coast Guard certification before entering service in May, officials testified at the House Finance Subcommittee.
The summer schedule anticipates the Columbia will resume its popular weekly runs between Bellingham, Washington, and Southeast Alaska early May through mid-September. But the ferry system is not accepting reservations for the sailings — not until it is confident the ship will be crewed and available for work, Rob Carpenter, Department of Transportation deputy commissioner, told House members.
Until then, the Columbia is only “penciled in” for summer service, Carpenter said.
If the 418-foot-long, 499-passenger Columbia returns, it would give the state ferry system two sailings a week to and from Bellingham, its most heavily traveled route during the summer months.
The vessel, almost 50 years old, is at the Vigor-operated Ketchikan shipyard, undergoing its required Coast Guard certification to return to service, Carpenter said.
The ferry system is offering $1,000 signing bonuses for new hires, Keith said, and is talking with unions representing ferry workers as it pursues options to restaff the ship. The Alaska Marine Highway System has been advertising nationwide for stewards and other workers since last fall.
The $1,000 bonus requires a two-year commitment to stay on the job. Starting wages for entry-level stewards aboard the ferries are $21.36 an hour for Alaska residents and $17.48 for non-residents.
The worker shortage is not a new problem. Ferry system officials reported last August that the Columbia’s return to service this year depended on restaffing the ship.
It’s not just the Columbia that lacks a full crew. The Transportation Department’s presentation to the House subcommittee last week reported crew shortages throughout multiple job categories required to operate the full summer schedule for the rest of the fleet, regardless of the Columbia.
The department earlier this month signed a contract with an Anchorage-based search firm specifically to help recruit for up to 49 vacant onshore and onboard positions, including junior engineers, seamen and oilers. The contract will pay $5,000 for each new hire brought in by the contractor, Alaska Executive Search.