Many of you are aware that towing vessels will be brought under Coast Guard inspection at some point in, maybe, the not-too-distant future. The first step has yet to occur as the Coast Guard hasn’t published the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in the Federal Register yet. This has been a long and slow process: Congress passed the law in 2004 and implementation has been molasses-like. It looks like we may see the NPRM this year, but don’t bet the farm on it. In any case, it’s coming one way or another and an inspection program requires inspectors. There are several thousand U.S.-documented towing vessels that will be affected by this and the Coast Guard is expanding its Marine Safety ranks to accommodate the increased duties.
We at the Master of Towing Vessels Association (MTVA) have long held that mariners have been, in general, poorly represented in the safety and regulatory processes that affect the various sectors of the maritime industry, and in the towing sector in particular. Think about the composition and output of the Towing Safety Advisory Committee, or the Coast Guard’s responses to the public comments (from organizations such as ours, the National Mariners Association (NMA), some pilot’s associations, labor unions, or individual mariners) that have been submitted to the various rulemakings. They’ve pretty much ignored us while showing extreme deference to the wishes of AWO. Why? Because they can, so they do. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of clearly expressing our very valid concerns and opinions, that’s for sure. So we approach all of these undertakings, regrettably but necessarily, with a rather cynical eye because we have no other realistic choice. So far, and not surprisingly, playing by the rules and participating in the system hasn’t gotten us anywhere with the regulators. But that is not to say that it has all been a waste of time.
While getting absolutely nowhere with the Coast Guard we, the NMA and others were simultaneously making our complaints known directly to Congress. Because of this the Coast Guard has come under intense scrutiny in the past couple of years, particularly in the House of Representatives, for its mishandling of several important missions: the administrative law judge program, mariner licensing, and marine safety. Over time this may eventually yield results. In fairness, there has always been a tendency for Congress to pile more and more duties on the Coast Guard without providing the needed financial and personnel resources to execute those new or expanded missions. The Coast Guard, for its part, has always had a bad habit of grimly trudging off with their new duties knowing full well that they would be unable to fulfill them properly but never letting those who control the purse strings (Congress) know about it. The result? Gridlock amid a string of unfulfilled mandates.
This has recently started to change for the better when Congress did come through with funding to drastically expand and re-tune the Marine Safety arm of the Coast Guard. But there hasn’t seemed to be any noticeable change of culture within the Coast Guard bureaucracy yet, so without constant and careful oversight they tend to relapse to their default position of marginalizing or simply ignoring the mariner. The recent and rapid expansion of their marine inspector ranks looked, for all purposes, to be more of the same: favoritism for academy graduates and former CG personnel at the expense of experienced but primarily limited-tonnage towing industry vets who would bring much more to the table. We’ve watched with dismay as many inspectors have already been hired, virtually none of whom we could possibly relate to as a peer. This is not a recipe for success.
Nonetheless, we’re currently attempting a last-ditch effort to work with the Coast Guard on getting experienced towing vessel mariners into some of the remaining inspector positions opening up this year because we really want to see the program work properly. The only way that will happen is if the inspector ranks contain a significant number of personnel who know what the hell they’re looking at and looking for, and by significant we mean at least a third to one half of the inspectors by volume. We’re not interested in just a token few to make us shut up and go away. There are literally thousands of towing vessels that will come under inspection as a result of the Maritime Transportation & Security Act of 2004 and real knowledge and expertise are needed.
A conversation I had today with Mr. Patrick Lee at Coast Guard headquarters left me with with the impression that there remains at least the possibility (time will tell) that a significant part (not the only part) of the problem is communication-based (isn’t it always?) and that we’re not being deliberately excluded. Maybe, maybe not. Either way, Government-ese is notoriously difficult to understand for non-government personnel. In fact, it can induce severe nausea and vomiting in even the hardiest of seafarers. He acknowledged, during a forthright hour-and-ten-minute phone call, that the descriptions of the job duties and required qualifications in the job posts could easily lead a reasonable (and reasonably intelligent) person to conclude that none of us would qualify as inspectors. He then went out of his way to carefully explain how to get around this seemingly-insurmountable obstacle, while also acknowledging that this was only a temporary fix. Should it be worded differently? Absolutely. We also discussed ways to clearly explain, up front and in no uncertain terms, who is qualified for a given position and how to get the best qualified candidates moving in the right direction so that they’ll know how to correctly answer the questions in the application, rather than simply giving up in anger and frustration, and Mr. Lee promised to run that back up through his chain of command right away to see if a workable solution could be found quickly. We know what the solution is, we just need a willingness to act. It’s way too soon to tell whether these efforts will bear any fruit or if the Coast Guard is really serious about this, but Mr. Lee’s sincerity appeared to be genuine and he quickly grasped how we came to our conclusion that this was a bait-and-switch and why this wasn’t sitting well with us. Hopefully his superiors will see it that way too, well before the next big round of hiring occurs this coming Spring. Note to Coast Guard: if you want to recruit us you must speak to us in our native language. Is that so hard to understand? It’s now time to put up or shut up.
In the meantime, we want to give the Coast Guard a final chance to take the first big step towards doing the right thing. So I’ve agreed to “advertise” the following positions (that I’m told an experienced working mariner could qualify for) on our blog because it will immediately go in front of more eyeballs than by any other available means. Since our start in September 2008 our readership has steadily increased and now stands at over 8,000 page views a month, mostly from working mariners within the towing industry and assorted internet lurkers. Precisely-targeted advertising like that is nearly impossible to achieve at any price, let alone for free, so we sincerely hope that this is recognized and made full use of.
There are currently two vacancies for Marine Inspector (Towing Vessels) in Paducah, KY. The closing date for applying for these jobs is Wednesday, February 17th. These will be what are referred to as journeyman, bag-carrying inspector positions whose primary duty is to be out in the field, crawling through the boats and actually doing the dirty work of making sure that the towing vessels operating on our waterways and along our coasts meet the minimum safety requirements, which are still in the process of being established. I was told that applicants must take a very open-minded, creative and broad look at their duties, experience, training and education while answering the questions in the application (click here for a Vacancy Questions Preview). In other words, think outside the box. If you’ve been administering or applying your company’s safety management system/program aboard your vessel (doing inspections!) and supervising and training your crew then you’ll meet most of the criteria they’re looking for. I’ll have a follow-up post out next week with detailed suggestions as to how to answer these questions and we’ll directly assist anyone actively working in the towing industry, whether an MTVA member or not, who needs help with it. That’s how important this is. You can reach us at email@example.com for assistance.
We urge all mariners with a solid background in the towing industry and, especially, recent and extensive service aboard the vessels, to apply. I’ll take this opportunity to mention that this isn’t only for captains and experienced mates or pilots: the engineers should not be overlooked either. In many cases their knowledge of machinery and systems makes them superb candidates. We can only hope that the Coast Guard understands that this is no place for 30-Day Wonders or those who’ve only briefly dipped their toe in the pool: there are qualified people out there who’ve been laid off and know what they’re doing. If you’ve been paying attention to the news section you may have noticed that, among others, Western Kentucky Navigation is going out of business. There is likely to be more and no one can say when, or even if, these jobs may return. It would be an unforgivable sin to have experienced towing veterans sitting on the beach on unemployment while green academy kids or other well-connected individuals fill up all or most of the inspector billets.
The flip side to this? Don’t waste the Coast Guard’s or our time. This is a serious career move we’re talking about, not just something to do until the job market improves, so applicants have a responsibility to be committed to it. Ideally, towing industry veterans who’ve recently retired or are nearing retirement would be the best candidates, assuming that they have no disqualifying health problems or physical limitations. An inspector that can’t, or won’t, enter the rudder rooms or crawl down into the bilges isn’t going to be much use in these field inspector positions. However, those no longer physically able to perform inspections could still be of immense value and usefulness to the marine safety mission as instructors, evaluators and investigators. There’s an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience out there that no amount of schooling can compete with. Are you paying attention, Coast Guard?
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