By Larry Persily

Wrangell Sentinel

The Alaska Marine Highway System is short more than 100 new crew to safely and dependably put the Kennicott to sea. Without enough onboard workers, the state ferry system will start the summer schedule in six weeks with its second-largest operable ship tied up for lack of crew.

Though management has said they could put the Kennicott into service if they can hire enough new employees, filling all the vacancies would represent more than a 20% gain in current ferry system crew numbers, setting a very high hurdle to untie the ship this summer.

The state would also need to wait on Coast Guard licensing and onboard training before they could use the new crew to operate the ferry.

Without the Kennicott, there will be no service this summer to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, a popular and lower-cost option for travelers to connect with the highway system rather than the much longer and more expensive run to Bellingham, Washington.

The crew shortage is extensive and has lasted more than two years as resignations and retirements have exceeded the count of new hires.

With the Matanuska out of service for millions of dollars of extensive steel repairs and asbestos abatement work, the rest of the fleet’s crew requirement comes to 496, plus a 20% buffer, totaling 595, reported Department of Transportation spokesman Sam Dapcevich in an email on Saturday.

Currently, there are approximately 450 crew positions filled, he said.

The 20% buffer allows for sick leave and other absences, and to avoid overtime and holding crew for double shifts to keep the ships running.

“If we remove the Kennicott and Tazlina from the mix (as currently planned), the crew requirement drops to 383, plus a 20% buffer, for a total crew need of 459,” Dapcevich explained. That matches the ferry system’s current summer schedule, which will hold the two vessels out of service for lack of crew.

Even without the Kennicott and Tazlina on the job, the state is “approximately nine positions short of an ideal crewing level for the ships that are operating,” Dapcevich said.

That shortage would jump to more than 100 crew if the ferry system wanted to return the Kennicott to service, with an adequate buffer of employees to cover all contingencies, he said.

Running the system without a crew buffer “could be compared to driving the Dalton Highway (North Slope Haul Road) without a spare tire.”

The Alaska Marine Highway System continues to recruit new applicants “through job and career fairs, targeted social media advertisements, union halls, maritime academies and more,” Dapcevich said. “We are also … making it possible for entry-level hires to start drawing a paycheck right away, rather than losing recruits while they wait for U.S. Coast Guard credentials to come through.”

The onshore employee count at ferry terminals and operations offices is not as stressed as onboard staffing levels. The ferry system had 20 of 148 shoreside positions vacant as of last week, Dapcevich said.

However, several of those vacancies are in middle- to upper-level management positions at the system’s Ketchikan headquarters, acting general manager Tony Karvelas reported to the Alaska Marine Highway Operations board on Friday.

The office has lost nine people since the start of the calendar year, Karvelas told the public advisory board.