By Larry Persily
The Alaska Marine Highway System is working faster to hire more crew, trying to fix problems that slowed the process so much the past four years that the state failed to keep up with retirements and resignations.
The hiring process was so cumbersome and excessively choosy that the state brought aboard just a few new workers out of 250 applicants forwarded by a search agency over the past year, according to a January report from the recruitment contractor.
“Since 2019, AMHS has lost more staff annually than recruitment efforts can replace. For every person hired, 1.8 people leave,” according to a Department of Transportation report prepared in January.
“The shortage of qualified crew members threatens the ability of AMHS to man the fleet. Being short-staffed, vessels are frequently at risk of going into layup and sail with a crew operating by extensive holdovers and significant overtime status, leading to low morale,” the report added.
The ferry system last month acknowledged that the Kennicott, the second-biggest active ship in the fleet, would be dropped from this summer’s schedule for lack of crew, jeopardizing service to Yakutat and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and likely eliminating a couple of stops in Wrangell each month May through September.
Though the summer schedule was due out weeks ago, as of March 6 it had not been released, preventing travelers from booking tickets for the heavy-traffic season that starts in less than two months.
Ferry system officials have said they do not want to release the schedule until they are certain they can provide the service — which depends, in great part, on stretching available staff to cover as many sailings as possible.
In February 2022, the state hired an Anchorage-based contractor to help recruit and bring in job applicants for the ferries, offering the contractor $5,000 for every new employee. Of the pool of nearly 250 applicants gathered since then, the Alaska Marine Highway System hired just four, according to a report prepared by the contractor PeopleAK, which used to operate under the name Alaska Executive Search.
“While technical qualifications were a barrier for some applicants, AMHS is losing many potential employees due to a cumbersome application process and lack of timely communication once applications are initiated,” according to the PeopleAK report.
The reasons vary for why so few applicants were hired, but some of it can be blamed on the state, which was too quick to reject people for issues so picky as mistakes in their cover letter, Katherine Keith, deputy commissioner at the Department of Transportation, said in an interview last week.
Hiring personnel were too cautious and waited too long for everything to get finished, such as maritime credentials, before making job offers, she said.
In an effort to start fixing the problems, the state has cut out a couple of steps in the applicant review process, Keith said. In addition, the Department of Transportation has designated a staffer whose sole job is to oversee hiring.
Working through the stack of applications has produced some immediate results. Of the 250 past applicants, the department identified 60 who met job qualifications and 12 were hired as of Feb. 24, with more job offer letters going out soon, Keith said.
The marine highway is budgeted for more than 600 onboard crew positions.
In another move to bring on new employees faster, the state is making “conditional hires,” Keith explained, getting crew into onboard training while waiting for Coast Guard licensing and other credentials.
That training could occur either on vessels while underway or aboard the Matanuska, which is tied up in Ketchikan while the state decides what to do about millions of dollars of steel repairs needed on the 60-year-old ship.
The state also is making it easier for new hires to earn a $5,000 recruitment bonus. Instead of requiring that they stay on the job 18 months, new hires can keep the bonus after six months on the job, Keith said.
In addition to the hiring report by PeopleAK, the ferry system last month received several reports from other consultants focused on management, operations, financial durability and fleet maintenance.
“The whole organization is inert, toxic and bureaucratic,” said a report titled “Operational Resiliency and Efficiency,” prepared by a team of contractors from Alaska and Seattle.
“While AMHS’ values are right, its structures are wrong. Too much of it still has the feel of the 1960s, ’70s, and ‘80s, both for those working for it and those using it. Shoreside administrative management are run off their feet. Capacity problems lead to shortages of staff, especially sea staff and management services that are slow and unresponsive.”
The report also addresses the loss of passenger traffic: “Customers are disempowered, with little choice but to use other modes of transportation, notably by air using the very efficient Alaska Airlines, private floatplanes, private ferry services and barge services (for transportation of vehicles).”
Southeast ferry passenger counts have fallen by about 60% since 1992, with state budget cuts imposed in 2019 adding to the decline in service and leading to the most crew resignations in a single year.
“The system has been under a lot of stress for years,” Keith said. “We’ve taken that extremely seriously,” she said of the consultants’ reports.
An evaluation prepared for the state by Seattle-based Elliott Bay Design Group identified other problems:
“AMHS department managers and ship captains do not have annual budgets to operate within. They therefore must apply for and justify even relatively small expenses, even if it is an ongoing one such as toilet paper.
“Communications throughout AMHS appear to be poor quality, untimely and often never occur at all.
“Current staffing level of AMHS do not have the skills, knowledge and capacity to adequately perform the required functions necessary to maintain compliance with the proposed additional federal awards.”
Congress last year approved grant funds that will direct almost $300 million to the ferry system for operations, repairs and new vessels.