University students will get their sea legs and the ferry system could find much needed workers under a new type of internship.
Up to six University of Alaska Southeast students a year can be accepted as oiler interns in engine rooms of state ferries under an agreement signed recently. Oilers maintain the engines.
The students will be part of the university's new one-year certificate program in marine engine room preparation. After they finish their classes, some may be recommended for a 180-day unpaid internship in an engine room.
The union for unlicensed ferry workers agreed to waive seniority rules, said Capt. Norman Edwards, operations manager of the Alaska Marine Highway System.
The program is a great idea, said Darryl Tseu, Alaska director of the Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific. The union just wanted to be sure the interns wouldn't be taking away paid positions.
``Perhaps this will help people coming into the field, allowing more Alaskans to find jobs in the field. There's a big, huge shortage,'' Tseu said.
Unlicensed engine room employees often start their ferry careers as stewards, making beds and swabbing decks. Then they may apply for an engine room job. They need 1,440 hours of experience below the water line, and must pass a test, to get the required Coast Guard oilers' certification.
But the ferries aren't getting enough engine room candidates that way, Edwards said. And it's hard to recruit from Outside.
``Because of the difficulty we've had to get people through the natural progression process, we are now looking at people who want to be engineers and have the training, and we're offering them the opportunity to come aboard our ships to get sea time,'' Edwards said.
The ferry system has 35 oiler positions and hired 15 oilers last year, he said. They start at $17.45 a hour, and work an 84-hour week followed by a week off. Until an oiler builds up seniority, it's a seasonal job because the ferries run less in the winter.
Karen Waldrip, an employment counselor with the state Department of Labor, got the idea for the internship. She saw the ferry system looking for workers, and students in the UAS diesel mechanics program who didn't qualify for the jobs because they didn't have sea time.
``It's one of those things,'' she said. ``We want to keep Alaskans in Alaskan jobs. I decided it's time to get some of these programs together.''
The internship gives the university's diesel students a direct shot at the engine room, said diesel and hydraulic instructor Chuck Craig.
The university has revamped some of its courses and added a marine safety course to create a two-semester, 28-credit marine engine room preparation certificate program. Students also get credits for the internship.
The Coast Guard oilers' certification isn't limited to ferry jobs. It also applies to other large vessels such as fish processors and cargo ships.
``It kind of gives you a driver's license to go drive anywhere,'' Craig said. ``And it would lead to a real good lifetime job with a modest investment of time.''