Is there a maritime jobs crisis in the USA?

I’m asking because two fellow bloggers have complained about the situation for US merchant seamen and officers in recent weeks.

First, Captain Jill is having a very hard time finding work.

I spent most of every day this week still trying to find work. Filling out online applications (again), for all the same places that I’ve already filled them out for. Calling everyone I could find to call. Still getting the same results…

Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

So, I broke down and went to Houston on Wednesday to see about joining the SIU. The unlicensed seamans union. I’ve been an applicant with the AMO (licensed officers union) since at least December and have had 1 (yes only 1) possible job. That job was gone before I could even return the phone call! Since then, they don’t answer the phone, they don’t return calls, I’ve pretty much lost hope that they actually have any work.

Of course I would rather use the license I’ve spent 30+ years and $50,000+++ to earn! But if I have to sail as a deckhand, I’m perfectly willing to do that too. Anything out at sea is better than working at McDonalds or Domino’s, which seem to be the only jobs open to me on the beach.

S***! 2 college degrees and 30 years of experience to earn the highest license there is out there, and what does it get me? NOTHING! Not a damn thing!

Yeah, I’ve had it pretty good up until the last couple of years. I was able to save a few bucks. I was able to travel and enjoy life. I did really love a few of my jobs. Never really hated any of them. But after almost 2 years of unemployment and unable to find ANY work that will even come close to paying the bills, I have to say I am getting more than a little bit pissed off.

Yes. Pissed off! Frustrated. Angry. Depressed. Un-motivated. I could go on…

There’s more at the link.

Then, Paul, Dammit! informs us that the fuel sector of the US maritime industry is in a bad way.

There’s a serious morale issue throughout the ports of NY/NJ fuel barge crew. My company is not immune there. Oh, we’re doing fine compared to the poor bastards down in the Gulf of Mexico, where even master mariners are working as able seamen and thankful when there’s even that for work. While you’re not seeing massive savings at the pump anymore thanks to the suits in the futures markets who’re really cashing in, efficiencies have led to companies being able to get oil out of the ground cheaper on land, which is competitive with offshore oil, even given the disparities of distribution costs. Jobs have shifted for now, and both shale oil and offshore oil have plenty of wells just waiting for the price index to rise enough to be worth kicking the drills in gear. In the meanwhile, while the low-hanging fruit is being brought to market, there’s lots of hungry bellies.

Morale is pretty low in the US maritime fuel transport sector, at least in many parts. It seems like medium-parcel movements are down, too, but not to the extent that I’ve seen in the small boats.

Unfortunately, I lack the ability to read crystal balls, and I don’t have enough chatty friends in the marketing sector for fuel transport to really put together a more complete, coherent synopsis for what’s going on, but I can say that the coconut telegraph among friends and shipmates and acquaintances online, there’s an awful lot of this time is different in terms of riding out the slowdown.

Well, we’ll see.

Again, more at the link.

Does anyone know whether these problems extend throughout the US merchant shipping industry?  Are they on both the East and the West Coasts?  What are the reasons for the downturn?  How bad is it here compared to elsewhere in the world, where I note that some articles complain about a skills shortage?

I’d like to know more.  If anyone can provide further information, or post links to relevant articles, I’d be grateful.  Thanks.



  1. The lack of US registered vessels is a big player. All the tickets in the world are great, but if there are no ships, then you're stuck. Or you go work for one of the foreign entities that hires for pennies on the dollar. Maersk and APL are the ONLY two US flag carriers I can think of.

  2. Peter,

    There is not really much of an international US Merchant Marine. We lost that battle many years ago.

    The freshwater sector (Mississippi and associated) was hurt by the war on coal. Agricultural traffic remains fairly high.

    The near collapse of offshore drilling has devastated the work boat business in the Gulf. There is a knock off effect on the Intercoastal Waterway, both in materials needed for drilling, and barge traffic of petroleum products. The current boom areas for oil production ship out by pipeline, truck and rail.

    I don't follow the Great Lakes traffic, though a quick looks at the numbers look fairly stable. The trend to larger container ships does mean less need for tugs for the same container count.

    So most of the problem can be blamed on federal energy policies: The war on coal, and the higher fees imposed on offshore oil post deepwater horizon spill.

  3. Old NFO, there are a few more. There's been 20 or so oil tankers built in the last 5 years for a few other companies, a handful of container ships and car carriers, and some indie companies have old rotten ships here and there. Total is still under 200. I think there are more tugboat mariners working in New York harbor alone than work in all the US-flagged ships left.
    For the most part, Articulated Tug and Barge units have replaced ships for offshore work for fuel and bulk trade. They're cheaper to insure, run, build, crew and maintain. People tend to judge things based on their experience. I tend to forget how extensive the shipping trade is on the inland rivers and Great Lakes, and know very little about Oil Patch work, which is why I like reading Jill's stuff so much. I'm used to coastwise work.

  4. Maersk, as I recall, is a Scandanavian Company. Danish, I think. Don't know of Lykes Lines is still sailing or not. I used to see their ships when I was in the Navy. Most of the US Merchant Marine is sailing under flags of convenience these days.

  5. Now that Trump has removed the EPA boot from the necks of our energy producers there may be hope for the future for this situation as well as many others.
    The US is now exporting petroleum products.
    In his recent visit to Poland Trump brokered a deal to supply them with large shipments of LNG to alleviate the stranglehold Russia currently has on Polish energy. Now who owns and operates those massive LNG tankers is still an open question, but the work will be there for someone.

  6. One of the indicators I use for judging economic activity is the Baltic Dry Index.

    While not directly related to US coastal traffic, it is nonetheless a good overall indicator of economic activity. See link from Wikipedia here-

    I also look at this site, which compares the BDI to a variety of indices from various organizations, as well as to the prices of various commodities.

    It is worth noting that the BDI presently is at less than 1/10 of its all time high, and hovers just above the cost of transport.

    This is an indicator that economic activity is low. I would not expect a resurgence of US economic activity for the foreseeable future. If anything, this is likely to get worse

  7. Peter, you noted in previous posts on the shrinking number of container hulls in service… More of the same, it appears?

  8. Lykes Lines shut down around 2005 or so. Per a friend of mine in the Merchant Marine, maritime traffic around the world is actually down from previous decades. I haven't asked why — but next time we get in touch I'll try to remember to ask.

  9. Tell her to check out the Great Lakes. There is hardly any steel industry left, but there is some and there are 1000 foot ships like the American Republic.
    Hope it helps,

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