Economic Development in the Houston Bay Area
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Maritime industry seeks good solid folks for rewarding careers

    Over the past several months, the Education and Workforce Development Committee of Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership has hosted leaders from regional industry sectors to participate in an informal panel discussion on workforce dynamics and trends.
    The panelists have discussed the skills needed by today’s and tomorrow’s workers in each industry sector and how regional educational institutions can better prepare young people to compete and excel in their particular industry.
    The committee’s most recent meeting focused on the growing workforce needs of the maritime industry. Panelists included Port of Houston Commissioner John Kennedy; Gordi Keenan, vice president, Training and Credentialing at Higman Marine Services, Inc.; and Paige Nguyen, human resources generalist with Wilhelmsen Ships Service.

Panelists included (l to r) Gordi Keenan, vice president, Training and Credentialing at Higman Marine Services, Inc.;
Port of Houston Commissioner John Kennedy; and Paige Nguyen, human resources generalist with Wilhelmsen Ships Service.

Commissioner gives overview of port
Commissioner Kennedy set the stage for the discussion by giving an informational overview of the Port of Houston.
    He explained that the Houston Ship Channel is 52 miles long from the Turning Basin to the Gulf of Mexico. It extends another 12 miles out into the Gulf, since the water is shallow near the coast.
    Kennedy said, “There are over 150 major businesses along the Ship Channel, including nine large terminals that the Port of Houston Authority runs. Through 2017, these businesses will be investing more than $53 billion in infrastructure. There are about 8,000 port calls per year for large ships along the Ship Channel, and over 200,000 barge calls.”
    Some have called the Port of Houston the nation’s most irreplaceable port due to the petrochemical complex that exists along the Ship Channel. It is the largest in the United States and the second largest chemical complex in the world after that in Rotterdam.
    Kennedy reported that the Port of Houston ranks number one in foreign tonnage, passing New York / New Jersey in July 2013. It is also the number one container port on the Gulf Coast.

Higman Marine building its workforce
Higman Marine Services, Inc., is a towboat and barge company with headquarters in Houston. Higman has approximately 76 boats, all with 2,000 HP. Each boat typically pushes two 300-foot petroleum barges. BP (British Petroleum) is its biggest customer with Valero coming in at second. Higman moves its products along the Gulf Coast and up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. The company has 475 employees on its vessels. A typical crew has a captain, a pilot, two tanker men and a steersman.
    Keenan has been working with the local high schools and San Jacinto College to build up Higman’s workforce in this area. His goal is to recruit better educated employees.
    Keenan explained, “The business has changed in the past few years, and it needs better wheelmen, tanker men and officers on these boats. The day of the good ole’ boy working on the boat is gone. Boats need a much more sophisticated person.”
     He’s interested in students with a better math and English education. He explained that he needs someone who can write a proper incident report, someone who can deal with the Coast Guard, someone who can deal with the customers. He said that it’s a challenge finding those people.

Maritime work hard but rewarding
On the vessels, the crew works 20 days on with 10 days off. The men either drive or fly to the boat, stay there for 20 days and then drive or fly back to the office.
    Keenan explained that a mariner’s life is hard but has its rewards. He said, “An entry level deckhand makes $100 per day. Within six months he can get a Coast Guard license to be a tanker man and make around $40,000. He can then go up several levels and max out around $70,000 as a tanker man. At that point he can get into the steersman program.” After two years in the steersman program, the next position on the advancement ladder is wheelman. An entry level wheelman makes about $120,000 per year.
    Higman Marine has more than doubled its size in the last three years. Keenan stated, “However, we can’t keep up with our own needs; so, we hire from other companies, too.”

Wilhelmsen opens training center
Wilhelmsen Ships Service has three business streams. Its technical services personnel go out on the ships and maintain the fire, safety and rescue equipment. They also handle the life raft exchanges aboard the ship. Another business stream involves marine products. Wilhelmsen sells everything from chemicals to safety equipment to the ships that go in and out of the ports. Agency is the third business stream. A ship needs an agent at each port to help it clear that port in regard to documentation.
    Nguyen explained that  the company is in need of good skilled trades applicants. In January 2013, Wilhelmsen opened its own training center. Nguyen has been working at the high school and intermediate college levels to create more of an awareness of the opportunities that are available in the maritime industry.
    Although Wilhelmsen only has about 125 employees locally, there are about 250 employed in the U.S. and 10,000 employees globally.
    Nguyen said, “Once a mariner, always a mariner. People tend to stay for a really long time.” Turnover is mostly due to retirements for Wilhelmsen. In the maritime industry, approximately 60 percent of its workforce is over the age of 50. The biggest challenge in replacing people is the 24/7 demands of the job. She emphasized that it’s important to be able to make quick decisions, because people work on their own a lot of the time. There are women in the inside sales positions, but the other positions are male dominated.

Capt. John Kessler, maritime instructor, demonstrates how mariners train  using the bridge simulators at the San Jacinto College maritime program. San Jacinto College is building its Maritime Training Center on 13 acres near the Port of Houston's Bayport Container Terminal. It is slated for completion in 2015. Photo by Jeannie Peng-Armao, San Jacinto College.

Essential skills needed
Keenan said that potential employees go through a very difficult interviewing process to make sure that they can take the pressures of the job and be assertive. At the entry level, Higman typically hires one out of four applicants.
    Keenan looks for someone who is going to be a leader, someone who will be of management quality who can make decisions, work crazy hours which are 24/7 while on the boat. It is essential that everyone  lives by the company policy and is super safety conscious.  
    Keenan added that the greatest change in the industry has come in the form of communications. Just 10 years ago, the orders went to the boat by radio. Now everything is cell phone, email or internet based. Training is computer based. The crew has to know how to use computers now, which wasn’t the case just 10 years ago. This all feeds back into the need for employees who can communicate well.
    It’s important to note that Higman Marine requires all applicants to have a TWIC card (Transportation Worker Identification Credential). Keenan said, “They don’t have to be rocket scientists – just good, solid folks.”

Schools continue to get involved
Nguyen and Keenan have been working closely with schools and colleges in the region on maritime workforce development.
    Over the past several years, a pipeline has been built for students to begin workforce training in high school, continue at the community college level and go on to a four-year university if that is part of their career path.
    San Jacinto College is part of a National Science Foundation grant involving the Southeast Maritime and Transportation Institute (SMART) Institute.     The institute looks at four basic aspects of the maritime industry: 1) ports and logistics 2) vessel operations, 3) pleasure craft, and 4) ship building and repair.
    This summer San Jacinto College will be hosting a SMART Institute aimed at counselors, assistant principals, and others who are interested in a maritime program. High school counselors play a large role in guiding students toward  career goals. The SMART Institute will help to meet the maritime workforce  challenges.
    Each of the industries that have participated in the panel discussions to date — health care, specialty chemical, aerospace, and maritime — have specific workforce needs.
    To learn more about them, visit BAHEP’s Education and Workforce Development page by clicking on the Education & Workforce Development button on BAHEP's home page.

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