By James Brooks

The Alaska Marine Highway System may have to stop some sailings next week as the state ferry system’s hiring woes continue through the peak summer travel season, its top official said Friday.

“We’re at risk of shutting the Hubbard down this next week because we can’t get another licensed engineer onboard,” AMHS director Craig Tornga told the ferry system’s operations board.

The Hubbard is scheduled to sail between Haines, Skagway and Juneau on six days between July 16 and July 22.

This summer, Alaska’s ferry system is running only six of its nine available ships; two have been laid up for mechanical work, and the oceangoing ferry Kennicott has been sidelined because there aren’t enough trained crew to operate it.

“The only reason we have six operating (ships) is because of the willingness of crews to work over (their scheduled breaks),” Tornga said. “We actually don’t have enough for the six.”

The ferry system’s hiring woes are the result of a combination of factors, including a global shortage of maritime workers and problems on the state side. Among the biggest issues is a flawed payroll system, which Tornga said has left some ferry workers’ pay delayed.

“AMHS as a whole still has some serious payroll issues going on, which is hampering our ability to recruit and keep people,” said Capt. Keith Hillard, a member of the ferry system’s operations board.

The local union hall of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association is urging members to not sign with the ferry system, Tornga said, because of those payroll delays.

A national MEBA official did not immediately answer an inquiry on Friday.

“Payroll is a real problem for us. DOT is trying to stand up payroll for the department, and we can’t have it soon enough. It’s really hurting us,” Tornga said.

In May 2022, 60% of the ferry system’s jobs were vacant, the highest vacancy rate among any state agency.

On Friday, Tornga said the agency was “full” on entry-level positions aboard ships but is continuing to suffer shortages among licensed positions.

Ten of the system’s 80 wheelhouse jobs are vacant, as are 36 of the 122 engine-room positions. Among positions for able seamen, 12 of 58 jobs are vacant.

Tornga and members of the ferry board noted that competition for licensed mariners has gotten so intense nationally that even the federal government is now offering extraordinary bonuses and pay for those jobs.

The Military Sealift Command, a civilian organization, is offering an average annual salary of almost $100,000 per year for able seamen, plus a hiring bonus of more than $23,000.

“When they throw bonuses out like that, it’s really hard,” Tornga said.

According to public records dating from March, the AMHS was paying $26.38 per hour for an able seaman.

Shirley Marquardt, chair of the operations board, said she saw the federal offer, too.

“I did see that, and my heart sank,” she said.