Career exploration day connects youth to opportunity in the maritime industry

Students aboard the SS Virginia V.

This summer, the Youth Maritime Collaborative’s first-ever South Lake Union Day event provided a chance for youth who are participating in internships or training programs to learn about maritime career opportunities, get hands-on experience with real maritime skills, and explore the history behind transportation and industry in the Puget Sound region.

Sponsored by the Port of Seattle, the all-day event featured hands-on activities from SS Virginia V and partnering organizations including The Center for Wooden Boats, Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), Northwest Seaport, and Puget Sound Maritime. Over a hundred students from six local youth-serving organizations—King County Airport interns, Goodwill Youth Maritime Program, WA-BLOC (Washington Building Leaders of Change), Seattle Skills Center Vessel Operations Program, Port of Seattle and SS Virginia V–split into groups and rotated through several stations throughout the day.

At the first station, students boarded the historic Virginia V and were taken on a voyage around Lake Union. Crewmembers provided narration of departure and docking procedures, gave tours of the engine room and wheelhouse, and performed demonstrations of knot tying and firefighting basics.

A scavenger hunt inside MOHAI was a chance for students to explore the exhibit and learn about local maritime history. The Center for Wooden Boats’ station gave students a chance to row out together on an umiaq (a type of open skin boat, similar to a canoe, historically used by Yupik and Inuit peoples), while Northwest Seaport’s station took students aboard the 1911 halibut schooner, Tordenskjold, to learn about the fishing industry.

Students on the Virginia V learn about the engine’s operations from a crewmember.

The value of this kind of career exploration was clear from speaking with one student aboard the Virginia V expedition. A high schooler enrolled in Freedom School, the student got to know a few crewmembers and had the chance to ask them questions about the ship’s operations. The student expressed a goal of majoring in mechanical engineering at Washington State University: “I don’t really know what I want to do in mechanical engineering, but it’s something I definitely have an interest in.” Crewmembers were eager to answer the student’s many questions about their work, particularly in the engine room, where the student’s interest in engineering was apparent as he asked about all of the vessel’s many moving parts.

On his way out, one of the crewmembers said goodbye to the student with a handshake and a pamphlet with information about the Virginia V’s volunteer program, saying, “Hopefully I’ll see you here in a couple weeks!” Coming into South Lake Union Day, the student didn’t know that volunteering at a place like the Virginia V was an option. Now, he has personal connections with the crew and knows that he will be welcomed back.

That student, and many others like him, left South Lake Union Day with a new understanding of the maritime industry and the careers they could pursue in the field. Over one third of students who responded to an after-event survey said that they are now more interested in pursuing a maritime career than they were before the experience.

Maritime is a huge and vital industry with an aging workforce. In response to this growing need for workers in the industry, the Youth Maritime Collaborative was founded in 2016, comprised of members from the Port of Seattle, regional maritime organizations, youth serving organizations, industry leaders, educational programs and local government agencies. As a team, YMC works to increase awareness of and guide youth toward maritime-related careers through experiential events, high school internships and thoughtful career exploration.

The Office of Economic Development’s partnership with YMC is part of a larger effort to provide opportunities that give young people a window into Seattle’s economy and how they can join the maritime workforce. Employer tours, experiential learning events, and internships expose youth to maritime education and career pathways; events like South Lake Union Day show students first-hand that there are exciting, rewarding, living-wage jobs waiting for them in maritime that they may have otherwise never known about.

Have ideas for other career exploration experiences, or interested in finding out about upcoming events? Contact us at

Seattle Maritime Academy connects youth with high-paying careers

Photo courtesy Seattle Maritime Academy.

Sarah Scherer, Director of the Seattle Maritime Academy, gestured out of the classroom window at the Ballard Bridge over the Lake Washington Ship Canal. “How many people drive across this bridge every single day and don’t know that 80 percent of the Alaska fishing fleet is docked right there at Fisherman’s Terminal?”

She was speaking to a growing problem in one of Washington’s largest (and highest-paying) industries: many maritime industry workers are nearing retirement, and there is a shortage of labor to replace them.

The average age of the maritime workforce was over 54 years old in 2013, according to the Washington Maritime Federation. The aging workforce is presenting an issue across trade industries, and Washington’s maritime industry is no exception. This “silver tsunami” of retiring workers is troubling news for the state, as the maritime sector generates $37.8 billion in combined direct and indirect revenue annually.

This is where the Seattle Maritime Academy (SMA) comes in. SMA, a school within Seattle Central College, prepares roughly 32-36 students every year for a career in maritime, and it seeks to create pipelines into this high-paying industry for younger students as well.

Maritime students go underway for the last time right after their final for a simple cruise around the Sound. Photo courtesy Seattle Maritime Academy.

Since maritime sector jobs are regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard, SMA gives graduates an edge in entering this growing industry. Students take a nine month, hands-on program at SMA’s newly renovated facilities, preparing them for a career in either marine engineering or marine deck technology. Students then complete a 60 or 90-day internship, depending on their program, and leave SMA with their U.S. Coast Guard certification for a position on a vessel. These positions earn $45-75 thousand annually for starting salaries, usually working for about six months out of the year.

Scherer was passionate about SMA’s potential to strengthen the region’s middle class, even describing trade education as “the answer to generational poverty.” At SMA, students can get their Coast Guard certification and be on the road to a lucrative career in less than a year.

Scherer said one factor causing the shortage of young workers is lack of awareness about the profession. Maritime jobs used to be passed along through families, but this has become significantly less common, particularly as students have encountered increasing pressure in their K-12 education to pursue higher education after high school.

Lack of awareness is doubly an issue for people of color and women, who are severely underrepresented in the northwest’s maritime industry.

“We’ve told all these kids over and over and over again, ‘You have to go to college, you have to get a bachelor’s degree to be successful,’” said Scherer. “And it’s not true. There are many jobs where people don’t need to get a bachelor’s degree just in the maritime industry, let alone all the other trades, that people can make not just a good living, but a fantastic living wage job that has upward mobility.”

This is part of what makes the Youth Maritime Collaborative so important, according to program coordinator Marsha Dickgieser. The Youth Maritime Collaborative, a collection of public and private agencies including the Port of Seattle and Seattle Goodwill, seeks to “get the wheels turning” in students’ heads about careers in maritime.

This is done through hands-on learning at special events where employers showcase the kinds of careers students could pursue, as well as through “lunch and learn” visits to local schools. The Youth Maritime Collaborative is hoping to partner with Seattle’s Office of Economic Development to connect more high school students to internships with local businesses.

“When we go do some of these high school programs, and we ask, ‘How did this change your opinion of the maritime industry?’ a frequent answer is, ‘I didn’t know it existed, and now I know it’s an option,’” said Scherer. She stressed the importance of reaching students of color, particularly those from immigrant communities: “That’s part of what we’re focusing on in these high school programs, is getting them to understand that [maritime is] an option.”

While Scherer and Dickgieser are passionate about maritime as an option for young people, they were the first to admit that a career at sea isn’t for everyone. “The industry is not for the faint of heart,” Scherer explained, citing months spent away from friends and family, nonexistent cell service and hard work.

The women will also be the first to sing the praises of being a mariner, however. “The stuff you get to see—I mean, I’ve been all over the world,” said Scherer. “I’ve gotten to see things most people only get to dream about. Countless sunsets and sunrises, and the beauty of being humbled by realizing how small you are.”

Dickgieser added, “You learn a lot about yourself, and you create this comradery…the friendships and the weird little family you build while you’re away, you can’t really get that anywhere else.”

Even if young people aren’t interested in leaving dry land, there are still “lots of opportunities” in maritime, said Scherer. “You want to be an engineer, but you don’t want to go to sea? Go to Skagit Valley Community College and get a marine technician degree, which is working on engines and hydraulics and auxiliary systems on land.”

Maritime jobs are difficult, but if young people can handle the tradeoffs—months spent at sea working hard, but months spent on land enjoying their high salary—and if “they have a sense of adventure, there’s a great job waiting for them.”

Brian Surratt: Cities cannot be bastions for the global elite

Director Brian Surratt returned from a Hamburg, Germany last night, where he studied how Germany’s iconic Port and City are managing their busy Port and how the City is managing growth and equity. Upon returning he wrote:

At the closing dinner of my Marshall Memorial Fellowship last spring, Kevin Cottrell, strongly suggested that we return to Europe within the next 12-18 months to solidify the wonderful connections we each made during our transatlantic fellowship. Well, last week, I was fortunate to return to Europe as part a Seattle study tour organized by The German Marshall Fund of the United States to Hamburg, Germany.
Hamburg is one of Germany’s most prosperous cities: it is Europe’s 3rd largest port (handling over 9 million cargo units annually, 3x the units Seattle and Tacoma move), it is home to a major Airbus assembly facility, and has a dense and cosmopolitan urban core that boasts growing tech and creative companies. Like other fast-growing global cities, however, it is experiencing its share of difficult social challenges, including rising housing costs, social and economic gentrification, and the complexities of integrating immigrants into the community, including 60,000 recent Syrian refugees.
I learned a great deal from Hamburg, how they have continued to support its maritime base as part of its urban center, their testing of housing policies to produce more affordable and “social” housing and intentional urban design and planning to make Hamburg more livable for more people. One of the folks we met challenged me: if cities like Hamburg and Seattle are indeed the primary social organizing tool for people today and in the future, then cities must meet the social, economic and cultural needs of all residents. Cities cannot be bastions for the global elite – our leaders, our policies, our neighborhoods, our employment base must work for creatives, poor folks, children, people of color, the working class, technologists. That’s Hamburg’s challenge, it’s Seattle’s challenge.

Mayor Ed Murray Welcomes Largest Shipping Vessel in U.S. History to Seattle

The CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin made history Monday morning by becoming the largest ship to ever port in Seattle. The ship is also the largest vessel to ever port in the United States.

Larger than the Columbia Tower and longer than 5 Boeing 747s, the CMA CGM is quite a sight to be seen.

Mayor Ed Murray was on hand to greet the ship, along with Seattle Fire’s Leshi. Several Council members were in attendance as well, including Council President Bruce Harrell, Councilmember Tim Burgess, Councilmember Debora Juarez and Councilmember Rob Johnson. 

Terminal 18 is one of the few ports in the world large enough to host a ship of this size. The Port of Seattle and the regional maritime industry has been preparing to host so-called “super ships” for some time.

During the ceremony to welcome the vessel to Seattle, Mayor Ed Murray spoke about the importance of the maritime industry to Seattle because of the solid middle-income jobs the industry produces. He reconfirmed the City’s commitment to the industry and called the Benjamin Franklin, “incredible.”

The Northwest Seaport Alliance generates $1.1 billion in direct income, $2.4 Billion in induced income and $554.3 million in indirect income, for a total of $4.1 billion in total income & re-spending in the region.