Nationwide labor shortage hits Alaska tugboats

A tugboat in Unalaska
The 105-foot Millennium Star tractor tug services the petroleum and fishing industries. Like on many boats in the industry, crew members have been increasingly hard to come by. (Photo by Theo Greenly/KUCB)

The labor shortage hitting the nation is particularly pronounced in Alaska, where the rate of unfilled positions is about twice the national average, according to the state’s labor data.

Health care, food service and hospitality are among the hardest-hit industries.

And in the Aleutian community of Unalaska, you can see it playing out with tugboat mariners.

Chris Iszler is the captain of the Millennium Star, a 105-foot tractor tug that services the petroleum and fishing industries. He’s also the regional manager for Centerline Logistics, a marine transportation company that owns the tug.

Iszler said he started as a cook 27 years ago and worked his way up.

“Now I’m the captain and regional general manager of the operation here,” he said.

Stories like Iszler’s are pretty typical in the transportation industry. But right now, the industry is having a tough time attracting applicants for those entry-level jobs. Iszler says they’ve had one opening for more than four months, and they’ve only had a few applicants.

An entry-level cook can earn $80,000 working about six months out of the year, and the job doesn’t require a college degree. Still, many of those positions remain unfilled.

“We’ve been running without a cook on here for the last two trips,” Iszler said. “It’s not normal.”

Kimberly Cartagena works for Centerline, which owns the tugboat. They’re among the top three petroleum transportation companies in the United States, with operations on the east and west coasts, the Gulf of Mexico, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Panama Canal. She says her company is feeling the pinch.

“No matter how many places we posted in, no matter how many places we go to recruit from, there just aren’t people applying for tugboat jobs,” she said.

That lack of applicants means a lack of crew, which can have deep consequences for the industry. It creates the risk of boats having to stay put.

“If you don’t have enough crew members, then the vessel can’t move,” Cartagena said.

And that can ripple out to different industries. A stuck barge could result in grocery stores with empty shelves. Or cruise ships that can’t get fuel.

Although Cartagena said it hasn’t yet come to that for her company, Centerline crewmembers are forced to work more hours, longer shifts and to run skeleton crews.

“While we have a shortage in people applying for the positions, we definitely have our long-term employees who have been here for so long and are helping us get through,” said Cartagena.

A recent study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce suggests that the so-called Great Resignation has been more of a great reshuffle. That’s because most of the people who have left jobs are getting re-hired somewhere else.

Cartagena has noticed that trend. The tugboat lifestyle can be challenging, especially for people with families. Mariners sleep on the boat, so that takes them away from their relationships on shore. She says many workers have left to take jobs where they can be closer to their families.

Millenium Star Captain Chris Iszler — who is based in Dutch Harbor — told this work-around story about an ex-crewmember who took a job in Hawaii.

“They’re so short on employees that they had to pull him on his off time from the Hawaii run and bring him up here to Dutch to fill in, so they’d have a full crew,” Iszler said. “So this is during his days off … and he’s out here in Alaska instead of being home with his family.”

People can enter the industry with relatively little experience. Someone fresh out of high school can earn their Merchant Mariner Credential and start off on a career track. And that kind of accessibility has the Millennium Star crew getting creative.

“We’ve started going through our friends. Like, ‘Hey man, do you want a freaking job?’” Iszler laughed.

And sometimes it pays off. He said the captain of another boat liked the work ethic of the person doing a bathroom remodel on his vessel, so he offered him a job.

“We’re going through the hiring process with him now,” Iszler said.

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