The Great Lakes shipping industry has its "help wanted" sign out.
With unemployment rates low, shipping companies say fewer people are drawn to careers on the lakes. So they've been sweetening pay and benefits, while cautioning that workers must be able to tolerate isolation and long separations from loved ones.
"With new technology and cell phones, we can call home every day ... talk to our spouses and that really helps out a lot," said Scott Briggs, captain of the freighter Charles M. Beeghly. Some crew members use cell phones connected to laptop computers to send and receive e-mail, he said.
Entry level jobs can pay as much as $40,000 yearly, plus benefits such as a 401k plan and two weeks of paid vacation. Captains or chief vessel engineers can earn $90,000, said Glen Nekvasil, a vice president with the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers' Association.
"And there's plenty of opportunities for overtime. You don't have to spend a dime when you're on the ship -- room and board is free," he said Wednesday. "The industry is looking for people in all the positions we have on our ships, both licensed and unlicensed."
The Great Lakes shipping industry needs about 4,000 professional mariners. If the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, in Traverse City, could graduate 50 officers a year, they'd get snapped up, he said.
"A sailor's life is a very different lifestyle. Vessels operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's a lifestyle that's not for everyone," Nekvasil said.
Deckhands are the entry level position. Like most crew, deckhands work four hours on and eight off, washing the vessels, scraping and painting them, handling dock lines and securing the hatches. Companies hire men and women.
Engine room members may have to tolerate an environment that reaches 100 degrees or more during the summer.
But low joblessness rates aren't the only reason for the dearth of mariners.
The recession of the 1980s hurt the steel industry, which in turn hurt the shipping industry.
"The young people who would come into our industry found themselves on shore and found new careers. Now we've got people getting close to retirement and we need young people to come in and start filling those gaps," Nekvasil said.
"Basically, we lost a generation in a sense."
Many companies try to ease the loneliness by letting more veteran crew members bring their spouse or an older child on a trip occasionally, he said.
Recent technology also has helped ease the pinch, Beeghly wheelsman Ed Kester told WJRT-TV of Flint. With cell phones, "you can call somebody, you don't have to wait until you get to the next dock and hope you're off duty to call. You can call right from the boat now."
On the Net:
Great Lakes Maritime Academy: http://www.nmc.edu/maritime/
Lake Carriers' Association: http://lcaships.com/
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