The shortage of marine construction workers is at a critical mass. And the impact of that shortage has far-reaching reverberations throughout the industry from dredging contractors to bridge builders to dock builders.
This labor shortage in the marine industry started a few years ago, long before the COVID-19 pandemic. As with many other industries, professionals retired without younger workers in place to fill those open positions. Whether because of the aging of Baby Boomers, the unwillingness of younger workers to enter the field, or both, there are similarities to the employee shortage experienced in marine construction with what we have seen in the manufacturing/CDC, truck driving, and related fields.
The demand for the expertise of marine construction workers of all levels is only expected to increase. Hurricanes Harvey, Ida, and Maria left significant damage to the infrastructure along the Gulf Coast and elsewhere as the storms headed inland. Also, the United States aging transportation infrastructure has risen to the forethought of many with the new bill recently passed by Congress which will also increase the need.
Industry requirements and risks present staffing challenges
A marine construction worker takes a certain individual, one that doesn’t mind working from a moving surface, one that doesn’t mind working over water, and one that doesn’t mind less than ideal working conditions on a stormy day. “Working on water is simply a scary proposition for some workers, especially if they are unable to swim or are uncomfortable around it,” said Tracy Markowski, Manager, Marine Hull & Liability for RB Jones.
Some other factors to consider which can make it hard to recruit:
- One can’t just “walk away” from the jobsite if they are offshore
- Inconsiderate recreational boaters that cause large wakes near a jobsite
- Unsecure barges may bump into each other, possibly resulting in injuries
- Labor intensive and dangerous work
Training can be expensive and time-consuming
Because of the very specialized nature of the marine construction job, specific training is required. It can take up to seven months to become a certified commercial diver or even longer to become an engineer involved in dredging operations plus the continuing education. A crane operator can take a two-day course but then will require another 3 to 6 months before becoming fully certified. Filling marine construction positions can require continuing education for trained employees or an investment by the employer to train new employees.
This is needed not just to help the employee complete the job, but to adhere to industry requirements to support safety initiatives for themselves and the workplace.
“From an insurance perspective, showing a comprehensive training and safety plan, which is proven effective, helps to control insurance costs,” Markowski said.
The impact of labor shortages risks the reputation of employers
Improper training and shortage of employees can all lead to reputational issues for marine construction companies. The inability to finish a job on time and the usual financial penalties for such delays can potentially lead to serious financial problems. These problems not only create a financial impact but an adverse reputation could have long-reaching effects. Future jobs may be lost plus the ability to attract quality employees also suffers.
Therefore, the need to find the properly trained employees that contribute to the company’s reputation in a positive way in part through training is critical.
Tips for dealing with labor shortages
We do not know what the future will hold for filling marine construction positions.
However, there are strategies that employers can implement to help them improve their chances of meeting client needs. The first is to broaden your definition of demographic hiring – this can include recruiting more minorities and women.
“Changing one’s mindset of the “typical marine construction worker” opens a much larger qualified pool of workers,” Markowski said.
She added that promoting a positive corporate culture keeps employees engaged. “Investing in state-of-the-art tools can make it clear to potential and current employees that the company looks to improve working conditions and cares about their wellbeing,” Markowski said.
These investments and efforts to engage and train employees may cost money. But they may also preserve your business’ reputation and revenue stream during trying times.