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Sunday, July 14, 2024

MARAD’s Centers of Excellence: Addressing Maritime Workforce Needs and Preparing the Next Generation

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

May 30, 2024

(Credit: Diana Sherbs / U.S. Coast Guard)

(Credit: Diana Sherbs / U.S. Coast Guard)

Of the many challenges confronting the United States’ maritime industry today, some of the more crucial and complicated are related to the development of a well-trained workforce.

As is the case in any sector, those responsible for staffing jobs within the maritime industry must promote awareness, secure potential recruits, train recruits to be effective employees, retain high-quality workers, and provide sufficient levels of professional development, all while competing with other industries of similar nature. In today’s global and domestic market, such a task is not easy.

In an effort to assist the industry and meaningfully address this pressing and complex issue, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) created a designation program with the goal to help recruit, train and sustain the future workforce of America’s maritime industry. This program designates qualified training facilities as Centers of Excellence for Domestic Maritime Workforce Training and Education (CoE).

Marine News interviewed Dr. Shashi Kumar, MARAD Deputy Associate Administrator and National Coordinator for Maritime Education and Training, to learn more about this initiative and its goals, progress and challenges, and to explore what stakeholders within the industry can do to ensure the success of the industry for generations to come.

Highlighting the various crucial roles the maritime industry and those that work within its sphere provide for the United States, Kumar acknowledges that workforce shortages are a key factor and concern regarding maritime-related national and economic security threats. He notes that shortages could impact the nation’s readiness for meeting national security needs and the need to maintain our supply chains for economic sustainability.

The goal of the CoE program, Kumar said, is to support maritime education and training institutions in addressing the maritime industry’s workforce issues. MARAD Center of Excellence designations recognize and promote exemplary post-secondary maritime training programs that prepare students for careers in the maritime industry and assist the maritime industry in recruiting and maintaining the highest quality workforce.

MARAD announced its inaugural CoE designees in May 2021, recognizing 27 institutions across 16 states. Its most recent list of designees, announced in February of this year, consist of 50 maritime training locations in 44 cities across 17 states and Guam.

A CoE designation “highlights the individual and collective contributions of these institutions to the growth, sustainability, and competitiveness of the maritime sector in the United States and helps raise awareness about and foster interest in, maritime education,” Kumar explained.

To accomplish this, MARAD works with schools, industry and government partners to foster interest in maritime education and connect potential students with dedicated educational and training institutions.

For a school or facility to apply for a CoE designation, it must meet accreditation requirements as outlined under the codified statute 46 USC 51706. Summarizing the statute, Kumar noted that a training entity must provide training and education for the domestic maritime workforce, border the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, the Long Island Sound, the Great Lakes, or the Mississippi River System, demonstrate a record of success in maritime workforce training, and exist as a postsecondary educational or vocational institution. In addition to formal schools or facilities, public and private nonprofit entities that offer one or more other structured experiential learning training programs for U.S. workers in the maritime industry, or entities sponsoring apprenticeship programs registered with the Office of Apprenticeship of the Employment and Training Administration of the Department of Labor, may apply for a CoE designation as well.

Although CoEs all support the maritime industry, every training program and educational facility does not necessarily prepare students for life as a mariner. According to Kumar, CoE programs prepare students for maritime industry careers both afloat and ashore as they “collaborate with local, regional, and national business, maritime industry, and education partners to advance maritime education and industry-specific training.”

Kumar said CoEs provide training, certification, licensing and credentialing for existing and aspiring mariners and also “build core competencies to support Blue Teach industries, offer Associate of Arts, Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degree programs as well as short-term specialized training in maritime industry related vocational and technical disciplines.”

© Cultura / Adobe Stock

Even though the CoE initiative has made great strides in promoting employment and training within the maritime industry, such an initiative has not solved all of the many unique challenges within the industry. When asked about the greatest obstacles related to recruitment, hiring, and retention of skilled workers, Kumar said stakeholders have helped MARAD identify four basic areas that impact the maritime industry’s ability to maintain its workforce. According to Kumar, pay and incentives, work-life balance, marketing and outreach, and entry barriers are most impactful.

“There is tight competition out there in the marketplace for skilled workers from every sector of the economy, from the military to the high-tech sector,” Kumar said, “Each sector, including the maritime sector, must position themselves accordingly to attract and retain the right talent pool that they need.”

Expanding on MARAD’s role in maritime affairs, Kumar said “the challenges facing the industry at large require a commitment from the industry itself.” Noting that MARAD can “promulgate relevant policies and protocols that help foster a suitable workplace,” he added that the implementation of those initiatives are ultimately up to the industry. Overall, the skilled workforce shortage issue requires significant public-private partnership, in which both MARAD and private maritime companies work together to accomplish shared goals.

According to Kumar, the top goals for the CoE program moving forward are to strengthen CoE partnerships to advance shared aspirations and to increase collaboration and maritime learning opportunities across educational levels. More specifically, MARAD aims to expand its reach “down to K-12 institutions to inspire students to pursue careers in maritime-related fields, thus helping to address workforce shortages and support industry sustainability,” Kumar said.

In addition to the goals related to education and recruitment, MARAD, through the CoE designation initiative, aims to secure funding for the CoE Maritime Career Training Grant Program. Noting that the CoE program is authorized to provide grants to qualifying entities, Kumar said MARAD aims to award grants to centers under statutes identified under 46 USC 51706 once funding is approved in order to provide further support to leading programs within the sector.

When asked what more the commercial marine industry can do to ensure its workforce is able to sustain and meet the growing demands of the field, Kumar reiterated the importance of developing partnerships, increasing apprenticeship programs, and looking for opportunities to raise awareness and spark the interest of future mariners.

“The future of the maritime workforce is sitting in a K-12 classroom today. Reaching and inspiring the next generation of mariners is critical to addressing workforce shortages and ensuring the security and quality of U.S. maritime operations at sea and ashore,” Kumar said. A CoE designation aims to “raise the profile of an institution’s maritime program, highlight the vital role these institutions play in supporting the maritime industry, and connect potential students with diverse education and training opportunities and maritime pathways.”

“Looking forward, the authorization of the CoE Program to provide maritime career training grants, though currently unappropriated, would, when funded, help to expand maritime program offerings and training facilities, as well as outreach strategies to further enable the recruiting and retention of a highly skilled mariner workforce to strengthen both our economy and our national security,” Kumar said.

Kumar views CoEs as “incubators of opportunity, advancing the industry through innovation and outreach,” and MARAD, through the Centers of Excellence for Domestic Maritime Workforce Training and Education designation program, is helping industry leaders to “position to fill the gaps and provide maritime workers across the entire sector, [by] working with industry to directly address their workforce needs.”