Ferry system management missed the boat on hiring

It took a consultant’s report for the collective management of the Alaska Marine Highway System and state Department of Transportation to realize that of 250 job applicants over the past year, just four were hired to work on the ships.

At that rate, the ferry system would need close to 10,000 applicants to reach full staffing.

The system has been seriously short-staffed for more than two years, losing crew to resignations and retirements faster than it could hire new workers. The crew shortage forced cutbacks in service, keeping ships tied to the dock. It forced a lot of overtime and canceled crew leave. Department of Transportation officials repeatedly testified before legislative committees that they were aware of the problem and hard at work to recruit new employees.

And yet, even with all that, it took an outside consultant’s report to wake up management to a multitude of hiring problems that pushed away applicants, including that jobseekers were rejected for mistakes in their cover letter.

“AMHS is losing many potential employees due to a cumbersome application process and lack of timely communication once applications are initiated,” according to one report.

A separate report prepared by different consultants was far less gentle. “The whole organization is inert, toxic and bureaucratic,” said a report titled “Operational Resiliency and Efficiency,” prepared by a team of consultants from Alaska and Seattle.

While it’s good that the state asked for the outside look at the inner workings of the ferry system, it’s sad that it took so long and found so much that needs fixing. The damage has been done.

No wonder the Kennicott, the second-largest active ship in the fleet, will be tied up for the summer season for lack of crew.

No wonder travelers will not be able to reach southern Southeast Alaska through the nearest highway connection, in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, just a six-hour ferry ride from Ketchikan.

And no wonder the public is losing confidence in the 60-year-old marine highway.

Transportation Department officials say they are trying to fix the hiring mess and repair the damage to ferry operations. They went back and took another look at the 250 applications brought in through a recruitment agency and found dozens of people who met the job qualifications. Some have been hired, with more on the way.

The ferry system has established a path for conditional hires, bringing new employees on board to start training while waiting on Coast Guard credentials. The intent is to speed up the process of getting crew on the ships and the ships to work.

All good ideas. The traveling public can only hope it works. If not, the state could end up with more ships tied to the dock and more travelers who can’t remember the last time they boarded a ferry.

— Wrangell Sentinel


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