Maintaining Our Maritime Force

Jun 1, 2018 | Defense Transportation Journal

By Richard Berkowitz Director, Operations, Transportation Institute

Although the US flag maritime industry faces many hurdles, moving forward its strategic partnership with the US military remains critical, symbiotic, and multi-faceted. Traditionally, the industry and military have long allied themselves to support a strong private sector merchant marine in Congress through legislation. A role gaining increasing recognition, respect, and achievement is the collaboration between the armed services and maritime industry with regard to hiring veterans for all facets of maritime employment. Such collaboration remains mutually beneficial on numerous levels–not least being the impact on career opportunities for veterans and separating service members.

The decline of available commercial mariners to crew the Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) and, most critically, the active component of these assets is repeatedly underscored by top sea service leadership when testifying in Congress or when asked to share their insights on national defense strategic vulnerabilities. The active component is comprised of 46 vessels in the Ready Reserve Fleet (RRF) and 15 vessels in the Military Sealift Command’s (MSC) surge component, maintained with skeletal crews in anticipation of ramping up to full operational levels on a five or ten-day readiness schedule. At a 2017 Congressional House hearing, US Transportation Command Commander Gen Darren W. McDew stated, “…without the Jones Act, without the Maritime Security Program, without cargo preference, our ability to project forces is in jeopardy.” In testimony to a March 2018 joint hearing of the Readiness, and Seapower and Projection subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee, Gen McDew stated, “the US flagged commercial fleet is vital to the Joint Force’s ability to accomplish its mission.” He went on to suggest that the Jones Act and cargo preference “are intended to ensure a baseline of ongoing business to support our inter-coastal shipping capacity and maintain a market for US industrial shipyard infrastructure to build, repair, and overhaul US vessels.”

At this same hearing, Maritime Administrator RADM Mark Buzby (USN, Ret.), stated the Jones Act “is foundational to our merchant marine as it is today. It’s the ships, it’s the mariners, which are critical. And it’s the infrastructure that supports the shipbuilding and ship repair part of the industry and all of the supply chain that has impact on our government shipbuilding programs as well. The costs of all those and the availability of shipbuilders are greatly impacted by that. So [the Jones Act] has far ranging impact.”

Administrator Buzby cautioned Congress in the beginning of 2018 that, “while it appears possible to find enough qualified American mariners for an initial four to six months of sealift surge, sustaining safe operations with qualified crew could be impacted if a sealift surge exceeded six months…surge vessels would require roughly 3,860 mariners for sustained operation. This is in addition to continued operation of much of the privately-owned fleet.” This sense of caution stands to reason given the US flagged fleet in the global trades has gone from 106 large deep-sea vessels in 2012 to just 81 today, and merely 1.5 percent of our international cargo is carried on US flagged ships. Military planners generally agree there is a shortage of some 2,000 mariners, roughly split between licensed officers and credentialed deep-sea crew, needed for ongoing operation and sustainment of the reserve fleet beyond an engagement lasting more than six months.

Aside from the scarcity of US-citizen mariners experienced to operate ocean-going vessels, there are other structural hurdles hampering the development of a sufficient mariner pool in times of national emergency or conflict. Most notably is the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchstanding for Seafarers (STCW) as amended. These marine training and safety requirements have come into full force since January 2017. They mandate more sea-time, classroom training, security documentation (further restricted by US-centric regulations) and demonstrated skill proficiency. This leads to increased costs in time and money for individuals to obtain or retain credentials for a maritime career. Not surprisingly, these directives have further shrunken the pool of available mariners to be employed on deep-draft vessels. It also diminishes the ability of the Department of Homeland Security and US Coast Guard (USCG) to quickly certify new or retired mariners when a sudden manpower surge is needed.

Last, for the millennial generation and those following them there is a little familiarity with maritime employment. Containerization and the pace of the global supply chain have changed much of the lionized nature of seafaring. We are way past the vision of adventure gained from “Old Spice” commercials portraying a ruddy and dashing seaman heading up a gangway with a duffel bag on his shoulder.

Nonetheless, for veterans or those separating from the service, maritime occupational paths are a profession worth investigating and pursuing. Frankly, sea-going employment has much of what military folks appreciate of their service careers, while avoiding much of what they may have disliked. In contrast to many other industrial sectors, maritime provides and values substantial skills training, discipline, travel, appreciation for the chain of command, ability to work in dynamic environments, a defined career-ladder, mission orientation, and assignment flexibility that typifies the working life of every service member. Civilian mariners have much greater flexibility as to when they wish to be employed, the type of vessel they sign onto, the location from which they chose to work from, and where they voyage to. Within reason, they can terminate their assignment without a dishonorable discharge. A surefire bonus is they can avoid billeting with twenty or more of their closest shipmates, as most ships provide each crew member with their own stateroom.

Furthermore, when considering a career in the commercial maritime sector, the use of a military-to-civilian skills translator is not a necessity. What the veteran has reflected on their DD-214 [military discharge form] is of much greater concern to maritime recruiters than how creative one is in writing a resume or whether they are “dressed for success” for an interview.

The concept of Military-to-Mariner (M2M) as a value proposition has gained steady and widespread appreciation in recent years. This includes support from the White House to Congress, corporate boardrooms to labor union halls, top military brass to federal regulators, and beyond. M2M engenders a virtuous circle. By making the transition for those with military experience into the maritime sector less arduous we solve a number of concurrent problems. We are better able to meet industry employment demands for qualified mariners, improve homeland security in our ports and along our waterways by attaining a workforce for which being observant of security issues is second nature, meet military planners concerns for maintaining a reliable and experienced pool of mariners to meet defense/national emergency surge demands of the US merchant marine, reduce unemployment compensation and transfer payments taken directly out of the Pentagon’s and Veterans Affairs’ budgets for dislocated veterans, as well as improve military recruitment, retention, and performance by demonstrating to those considering entering the military the viability of a service career leading to a successful private sector transition upon separation. Moreover, for those who may be uncomfortable reentering the civilian world, the structure and familiarity of sea-going employment may be a most appropriate fit for many veterans.

Discussions of these objectives and development of a strategic response thereof have been held in a number of forums. These include the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration, the Department of Homeland Security’s USCG National Maritime Center (NMC) and Merchant Personnel Advisory Committee, the US Congress (with hearings and listening sessions conducted by the House Transportation Committee, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation), the Executive Office of the President, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the industry coalition group American Maritime Partnership (AMP). Through legislation, consensus, concerted initiatives, targeted budgeting and rulemaking tangible achievements have occurred and more are underway. The service member now has less impediments and greater opportunities to find a maritime career as a result.

Some of these include the:

  • Howard Coble Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2014 amended sea-time requirements for uniformed services members to extend the period of qualifying sea service for officers from the previous three years to the previous seven years;
  • USCG National Maritime Center has enhanced the ability of service members to have their credentialing submissions reviewed by staff who are subject matter experts in military sea service records, providing swifter and improved approval rates;
  • Army, Navy, and Coast Guard have increasingly submitted more formal courses and training for approval by the NMC and many more courses have been approved for credit towards civilian ratings and officer credentials;
  • Navy has enhanced their credentialing website, Navy COOL (, whereby their members can better access what career opportunities they are eligible for and what gaps in training/sea-time they may need to fill for a civilian maritime position;
  • Military personnel can attain and be reimbursed for the cost of their Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) and Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) while in the service;
  • USCG Academy graduates now have the opportunity to obtain a domestic-only merchant mariner credential endorsement as a master of less than 100 Gross Tons upon near coastal waters;
  • USCG is agreeable to accepting military random drug screenings and periodic physical exams when a separating service member applies for their MMC;
  • USCG has made it more practicable for determining who is a qualified accessor for onboard assessments and for evaluating courses and instructors to meet approval standards; and
  • Navy and USCG have provided improved access to clarify the M2M process through publication of the following:

– and


Ironically, the US Army’s Maritime Training Division at Fort Eustis is recognized as the military’s gold standard when it comes to military training meeting or exceeding the criteria set by NMC. They are proud to be recognized as the only military branch “schoolhouse” producing mariners who need no additional testing to receive their USCG credentials.

A career in maritime is not limited to those who have a sea service enlisted rating or officer designation typically associated with navigation, engineering, or fabrication. Although the military has increasingly sought contractors to provide food services at base installations, Culinary Specialists (CS) ratings from all the services, whether shore-side or onboard a vessel, are welcome to gain some additional basic safety training and specialty galley training. In doing so, they can be working in the steward department on a ship in a matter of weeks. Some MSC assets, in addition to the vessels they manage themselves, are contracted out for management to experienced private sector companies. Often these vessels include required duty positions not organic to the merchant marine. These Navy and USCG positions (or their equivalent in the Air Force or Army) may include Logistics Specialist (LS), Storekeeper (SK), Electronics Technician/Officer (ET/ETO), Medical Department Representative (Professional Nurse, Hospital Corpsman–with independent duty certification, and Physician Assistant). Others without these ratings or deck/engine credentials, who are interested in a maritime career are encouraged to seek entry positions through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or Military Sealift Command. Once they have attained a merchant marine rating through these organizations they can look for opportunities through the private sector. In any case, those who have secret clearances would be of particular interest to some MSC contractors who are required to maintain crew with such clearances.

Many veterans can use their Montgomery GI Bill benefits towards necessary training/certifications. Those currently in the service can often use the expanded Department of Defense flexibility on tuition assistance to prepare early for a civilian maritime career while still in uniform. Other veterans may also find a path to maritime labor unions who offer career training and employment through their own affiliated schools/apprenticeships.

Finally, a new website is presented by the American Maritime Partnership. Building on the success of AMP’s Military to Maritime career forums held from coast to coast, the new M2M digital career platform seeks to connect veterans with career opportunities in the US shipbuilding a maritime industry along with providing training and credentialing information on transitioning from military service to the maritime sector.

More information can be found at:
Or in the January-April 2017 USCG Proceedings:{“issue_id”:408860,”page”:0}

The Department of Transportation’s senior executive, Joel Szabat, has stated, “The policy that we have followed for years in the US is that we rely on the commercial US merchant marine to employ and train enough mariners to serve on both those commercial vessels but also to generate a surplus that we use on federal vessels to meet our sealift requirements…the challenge that we have today is that the US commercial fleet is no longer large enough to provide both of those needs.”

Both the military and the commercial maritime sector are working collaboratively and earnestly to meet both these objectives. In doing so those who seek a post-service career in the civilian maritime community are welcome to enter an industry honoring their commitment and training while affording them a career where they can continue to serve national interests.


Mr. Richard Berkowitz is the director of Pacific Coast Operations for the Transportation Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to maritime research, education, and promotion. His work includes several initiatives to train and employ youth, Alaskan Natives, displaced workers, and veterans in maritime employment. While on staff at the Washington State Legislature he drafted the state’s Workforce Investment Act and served for many years as a board member and chair of the Seattle-King County Workforce Development Council.

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