Capital Daily

BC Ferries’ Employee Shortage Is A Global Issue. Here’s Why.

Episode Summary

BC Ferries is experiencing a labour shortage that has now resulted in the cancellation of scheduled departures. Today we learn more about the shortage that is impacting companies worldwide, and what the future holds for the struggling industry.

Episode Notes

BC Ferries is experiencing a labour shortage that has now resulted in the cancellation of scheduled departures. Today we learn more about the shortage that is impacting companies worldwide, and what the future holds for the struggling industry.   

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Episode Transcription

Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Jackie: Hi, my name is Jackie Lamport. Today is Tuesday, August 17. Welcome to the Capital Daily Podcast. Today on the show, two ferries scheduled to sail between the mainland and the island were cancelled. British Columbians are beginning to feel the impacts of a mariner labour shortage, but the shortage isn't just local to BC; in fact, it's worldwide. Today we learn more about why and what the future of the industry faces.

BC Ferries is working to attract and hire new employees, but they aren't coming, and the labour shortage has already impacted ferry service in the province. As I mentioned earlier, you may recall when three ships officers called in sick in two ferries were cancelled as a result. Both of those ferries were scheduled to run between Vancouver Island and the lower mainland. Currently, BC Ferries is looking for 100 new employees. But it seems this issue is not specific to British Columbia. There's an international shortage of mariners, and it's continuously getting worse. Today we're joined by Captain Philip McCarter, BCIT Associate Dean of Marine Transportation. 

Captain McCarter, thank you so much for joining the show today.

Captain McCarter: You're certainly welcome, Jackie. 

Jackie: Let's get right to it. What do you think is driving the cause of the employee shortage, specifically in British Columbia?

Captain McCarter: It's a very interesting question, as it has far-reaching ramifications outside of BC because mariner shortages are a problem that is growing as time goes on. Certainly, as we get out of the COVID pandemic and the economies of the countries around the world grow again, obviously more ships are going to be needed to carry goods for trade. These, in turn, will require more people to man them. Marine training colleges are at one end of the spectrum that deal with trying to replace and bring new people into the profession and individuals within their profession who are upgrading their certification to a higher level. You would start as a Watchkeeping Officer, either in the engine room or on the bridge of a ship, moving up to ultimately being the Captain or Master of the vessel or Chief Engineer in the engine room. A few factors at play here with respect to what's driving it. 

One factor would be there's a huge group of individuals that are near retirement. These will be your senior people, Chief Engineers, Chief Officers, the Second Engineers onboard ships, that group of people are getting ready to retire. So you've got a bog pillar; I bet you still have to prepare to take on these roles. So these are individuals who are upgrading. The challenge for them is to find time to study to prepare for the next level of Certificate of competency that Transport Canada issues. The focus group of people on the way out were filled by people who are also trying to be trained. Then you've got the at the other end as they move up, you've got new people wanting to come in, and they have to be trained through you either at BCIT or some of the other schools across the country to be able to at least work on a commercial ship. So this would apply to companies such as BC Ferries, C-SPAN ferries, C-SPAN tugs, cruise ships, and internationally, for officers on a lot of the commercial vessels you see in Vancouver harbour, for example, are crude and managed in a similar kind of way. So it's coming at it from many, many different angles. 

Certainly, there are many retirees, the group that is already in there waiting to fill those positions. They also need to be trained, because they can't say, "I've now been here for so many years." That's only one facet of it. The other facet is they have to get more knowledge and understanding of the complexities of ships as well. So Transport Canada is doing their part by making sure that curriculum is current and valid for ships of today, which I'm sure if you go on the bridge of a BC Ferry Spirit of British Columbia, their bridges are very complicated, they're not simple, get in there and drive these vessels. The engine rooms, too, are very, very complicated pieces of equipment on board the ships. So it's challenging to find, find people who are interested in this profession as well, given the high number of choices that people have these days. 

Jackie: I didn't realize that the actual structure of how you move up in the industry is holding people back, so you need to be working, and then also find the time to be training so that you can continue moving up in your career. But then there's this kind of a catch-22, where people need to take time off to train and fill the positions, but they can't because they need to be there to fill the positions. That's interesting. 

Captain McCarter: Much one way of looking at it, Jackie, that. But the training piece is a very important component because obviously, the public interest is here. You want well-trained, well-educated individuals in charge of the ship. Because if things go south, and you want people who can manage the situation, and need the training and the experience going together. So it is a catch-22 that has been in this industry for many, many years.   

Jackie: There's also the BC Ferry & Marine Workers' Union. They've released a lot of publications over their frustration with not being prioritized in the vaccination rollout. Do you think that there's any possibility that some of the shortage is specific to BC Ferries is related to employment satisfaction?  

Captain McCarter: I think BC Ferries is one of many companies that are challenged with retaining employees. As I mentioned, these are employees that are moving up the chain moving up the ladder. So any company, whether it's BC Ferries or C-SPAN, has to invest a lot of money into their employees to find the time off trying to find them so that they can take the training and get the sea time. So bc ferries and companies around the coast here have had to do their best to do this. Otherwise, it's such a competitive workforce that if an employee isn't satisfied with these kinds of career paths offered within these companies, they'll go looking elsewhere. So again, a catch-22 here is that if you don't provide this often, they're challenged to find people because they've gone to a competitor. That's very much prevalent not only on the West Coast but also on the East Coast of this country and internationally.  

Jackie: What are the impacts on service in BC?  

Captain McCarter: We don't necessarily see it. Obviously, as a consumer, the companies work very hard to ensure that personnel aren't caught short. They often have to work very closely with the regulator or Transport Canada if they see some trend that they can fill certain positions. The regulator itself can provide exemptions for companies in the short term not to stretch over a long period but to give companies flexibility and time to remedy some problems they may be having with attracting people into their workforce. So to us, we seldom see that. But from my experience with working with ship management companies, it's always a challenge every time there's a crew change. "Is it Jackie who's the same as the person on board? Is Jackie sick that day?" Then all of a sudden, my ship can't sail. So there's always that nail-biting period for Human Resources departments within these companies. Anything could happen to Jackie, as she's going to the ship and then the ship can go because Jackie's not there. They have certain built-in structures to on-call lists, but that takes time. Jackie's replacement happens to be in Tuktoyaktuk and can't get down to where the ship is in Prince Rupert within the timeframe when it's supposed to sail. So it's kudos to the ship management companies and shipping companies around the coast that make this issue something you don't see as a consumer. And it's only very rarely that it bubbles to the surface, or for the most part, they do a great job.

Jackie: You said that this is a worldwide issue, and that's something I've seen a lot. Is it the same reasons behind the shortages elsewhere? 

Captain McCarter: Yes, and the university that focuses on maritime matters, the World Maritime University, in Malmo, Sweden, run by the International Maritime Organization, they do a lot of research into manpower, seafaring, what's driving recruitment, retention and all this type of thing. They've highlighted that these are similar causes worldwide; the big countries that provide seafarers, the Philippines, for example. Certainly, you've got other countries that provide mariners to the international fleet. They, too, are fighting. Yes, there's a big retirement bubble. Yes, that's the challenge of trying. There's the big push, try to get seafarers to learn online while they're at sea. But after me, as a mariner too, once you've done your watch on the bridge, and in very complicated traffic situations, you come off either after four hours or six hours on watch. One of the last things I want to do is necessarily go on a computer, which is difficult with the connection when you're at sea for one thing and to do some training, I'd much rather relax and try to unwind, bearing in mind the focus now is very much on mental health. That applies to seafarers to so many is a very complicated issue, no question about it. 

Jackie: Working at the school, you would work with many young people or people looking to get into the industry. Why do you think they don't want the jobs? 

Captain McCarter: I wish I could have the pixie dust to solve that one. The choices for young people are just getting so vast that working on a ship gets drowned out by working somewhere else and trying to attract people to this; again, what maritime universities have indicated, it's a real challenge. Canadian seafarers are a very small group, even in the Philippines, where they provide a lot of manpower for the ships; the international fleets also have challenges finding people. So recruiting is a real challenge. I think it's many factors, one being a lifestyle, possibly being away from home, use of the word home for a period of time, whether it's a one month, two weeks, six months, depending on the shipping company. 

There are also the challenges where the turnaround time for ships is so fast that it's similar to an aircraft when they're on the ground; they're not necessarily making money. And ships are the same way, whether anchored or tied up alongside, they're not necessarily making a lot of money; they have to carry goods carrying passengers. So the turnaround, if you even see some of the cruise ships that come into Vancouver, for example, they come in at 7 AM, they may turn around, and they're out at five o'clock in the evening, the ship's personnel still have to work, so you have to be on board. After this, they may get an hour or two to get off the ship and get the mental health purge that sometimes you need when you're on these long contracts. So there's a lot of the negative side sometimes comes into play, going international, seeing different countries, different ports. And that is something that drew me to the sea was to go and see the world. And that is now compounded by a lot of other jobs that allow you to do that, too. You can be a photographer, get a sponsor, and go and check out Africa, and you could do some cool things and not necessarily go to see. 

Jackie: I was going to ask, actually, because one thing that struck me was the idea that as somebody who was in this industry, you have this perfect opportunity to work abroad, and that's something that a lot of people want to do right now. Are there any incentives for BC-trained workers to stay in BC? 

Captain McCarter:  Well, I guess a number of points on that one. First of all, whether you want to stay in BC, you can still work for a company on the East Coast. For example, they got Canada steamship lines, you can still live in BC, and they have come to contractual terms that you then go onto the ship and work for a month or two and then fly back. So your home can still be in BC, but you would work internationally or in other parts of Canada. For the other individuals who like to stay in BC, they’re interested in doing that. 

Then there's BC Ferries. They recognize that people want to live in BC and maybe Vancouver with its high real estate costs and living costs, not too many people can afford living here, and they may live somewhere else. And they can arrange to commute and provide time for these people to do that as part of their incentives for retaining their workers. The companies along the coast here, the tugboat companies, the ferry companies, which is the primary trade on the BC coast, try to record that they recognize that people may want to stay close to home. They’re brought on board, tugboats that operate in that vicinity. So their commute to work is not as long and there are ways and means to try to keep prospective people who want to work in BC to stay in BC, and kudos to the local companies for doing that.

Jackie: I think one of the focuses that I've seen a lot is ferry services, so for people to be transported back and forth between the island to the mainland, but this also has a huge impact on shipping. What kind of impacts could consumers see if this issue continues to get worse?

Captain McCarter: Obviously, there'd be situations whereby a sailing could get cancelled, for example, and the frequency of these could start to increase if the situation isn't remedied. So at the BCIT Marine campus, we have our nautical cadets on the bridge and engine room. They are. They're always full. As far as class sizes, the other schools across the country also offer similar. So the competitiveness between the companies may start to increase. I guess wages may have to go up in accordance with the increase in ridership costs. So I think if that continues, they'll start to see an increase in various sailings that are tugboats that don't sail because of crew complement not being there as well as to try to achieve increased work between marine cadets and the seafarers helping to work with the industry to make sure that the training is in lockstep with their career paths. So it may draw all of us together closer trying to solve this international problem. It's perplexing a lot of marine policymakers around the globe trying to remedy the situation.

Jackie: What do you foresee for the future?  

Captain McCarter: There's always the resiliency in the marine community, it's been there for thousands of years, that people have a calling to the sea, we're finding a lot more women are interested in entering the profession, and a lot more perhaps Indigenous and LGBTQ individuals who are saying, "Hey, I can also work here, too." So the typical pool of the male-dominated type thing is broadening. So I think that as training institutes we're looking to these groups as well. You come on in we were, we've got a great project with the bridge watch rating linked with the Ocean Protection Plan, which the current government put in place, we provide training, and all the hotel costs, training costs, all that are all covered. So individuals can at least come in and try the professional. It's almost like a test drive, if you will, the bridge watch rating. This has been very successful for us. We've had a lot of support from the top companies and BC ferries on this front, which is offered solely to women and Indigenous individuals.

Jackie: Okay, so you the future you think could be hopefully filled by attracting people who typically weren't necessarily called to the industry? 

Captain McCarter: That's correct. I think that is where a lot of other countries are looking as well. Because if you focus too much on one pool, that pool is shrinking, and you need to look at other lakes. There's a large number of women who are interested in this profession. And again, shipping companies are recognizing women have different needs and aspirations and working with women's groups to try to attract women there. Even BC Ferries again, they've got women Captains, mentors, Masters, and they're using them to get out there and attract more women into the profession. That, I think, is where it will go in the next 20 years and beyond. 

Jackie: Captain McCarter, thank you so much for this.

Captain McCarter: You're welcome, Jackie. It's a pleasure talking to you. 

Jackie: If you want to help support Capital Daily's local journalism and connect your business to our engaged and curious great Victorian audience of over 50,000, email our partnerships team at Thanks so much for joining us today. If you enjoyed the show, please leave a rating and review and also subscribe so that you don't miss any episodes going forward. We post new shows every Monday to Friday. My name is Jackie Lamport. This is the Capital Daily Podcast. We'll talk to you tomorrow.