Workers load cars aboard the Columbia ferry during a stop in mid-July. (Meredith Jordan / Juneau Empire File)

Workers load cars aboard the Columbia ferry during a stop in mid-July. (Meredith Jordan / Juneau Empire File)

State ferry board pushes for measures to boost hiring

Motion calls on Dunleavy and Legislature to grant marine director more power.

The Alaska Marine Highway System Operations Board passed two motions Friday aimed at addressing the shortage in ferry crew, one of which calls upon the Dunleavy administration and the Alaska State Legislature to grant emergency powers for hiring personnel to the ferry system’s marine director.

The other motion recommended the state fund an apprenticeship and training program for new and existing AMHS workers using funds earmarked within the Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP).

It applies to licensed and unlicensed crew, and stipulates the program fit within the eligibility of federal funding and union agreements. Recipients would be required to commit to the system for a ”specified number of years,” to be determined later.

Both motions passed unanimously at the monthly meeting Friday, with board member Katherine Keith, deputy commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, abstaining from the vote calling for the additional powers. Keith had left the room and was absent for the vote on the second motion.

The board has been under pressure to come with solutions. There is a nationwide shortage of licensed mariners, but AMHS has been particularly hard hit. Tazlina, one of the smaller vessels in the fleet, has been sidelined for the season, and there are periodic concerns about specific schedules, with crew working relief and on holdover.

With just six vessels operating as of Aug. 18, AMHS was “still down 10 wheelhouse positions,” said Sam Dapcevich, a spokesperson for the ferry system. Another 54 are needed in the licensed personnel column, including engineers, bosuns, able bodied seaman, junior engineers. Dapcevich said there were an adequate number of unlicensed personnel, except cooks, and that they recruit to keep those numbers current.

A leading issue in hiring personnel has been that other maritime operations pay better. That is particularly true with Washington State Ferries, AMHS’ closest competitor in hiring, Craig Tornga, the system’s marine director, told the board.

The motion calling on action by Dunleavy and the Legislature is narrow in focus and applies only to the marine director. Initial language had it apply to AMHS management, but board member Capt. Keith Hilliard suggested the change.

The motions covers “emergency powers and ongoing variances to personnel processes to provide the director the flexibility to offer comparative wages and compensation packages for targeted positions both permanent and temporary.” It also states that wage and compensation must not exceed what is offered by Washington State Ferries.

After the motion seeking greater hiring authority was passed, a board member asked Tornga whether it was as helpful as intended.

“It’s in the right direction,” said Tornga. “We definitely need a lot of help in this area.”

The board also approved the first phase of the master plan, with careful language: “Not withstanding previous communications requesting more info on Cascade Point and M/V Matanuska, AMHOB concurs with the 2024-2027 STIP regarding AMHS items.”

The 60-year-old Matanuska has been sidelined through 2026. It is in need of extensive repairs, but the full scope hasn’t been determined, and board members want better estimates before they put more money into the vessel. The other matter has to do with the feasibility of a new ferry terminal facility in Juneau at Cascade Point.

Contact Meredith Jordan at meredith.jordan@juneauempire.com or (907) 615-3190.

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