TRAVERSE CITY — Long a symbol of romance and adventure, the seafaring life is attracting fewer young adults these days, creating a worsening personnel shortage for those hauling cargo across oceans and the Great Lakes.
Some shipping companies have told the U.S. Maritime Administration that the problem has forced them to dock or even sell vessels. Others said it has kept them from expanding fleets, or caused delayed voyages and lost contracts.
A cross-section of the maritime industry has been affected to varying degrees, from oil tankers and bulk cargo haulers to tugs, barges and ferries.
"It's not limited to any region or any nation. It is a global challenge," Maritime Administrator Sean Connaughton said.
That includes the Great Lakes, where ships carry iron ore, coal and limestone to factories and pick up Midwestern grain for transport overseas.
"We look to hire four to six new officers every year, and every year we can't get them," said Ed Wiltse, vice president of operations for Grand River Navigation, which has five cargo haulers.
Wiltse prefers officers trained especially for the Great Lakes, but sometimes must hire saltwater vessel operators on a short-term basis. "We've had to fly in people at the last minute from Florida or Seattle and get them to a ship so it can leave," he said.
The situation has been developing for years and has many causes. Some point to licensing and training requirements that have gotten tougher, along with beefed-up safety standards and greater use of computers and other technology.
"The days of people just being able to jump on a ship and get a job are long gone," said Glen Nekvasil, spokesman for the Lake Carriers Association, a trade group representing Great Lakes shippers.
With international commerce picking up, more goods are being transported by water, so there are more job openings. Stepped-up offshore oil exploration is boosting demand for ships and crews.
And the work force is gradually aging, as veteran mariners retire and fewer young people get aboard. Many in the industry say going to sea has less allure for youths than in previous generations.
One turnoff is spending months at a time away from home.
"You don't go home at 5 o'clock and kiss the wife and ask Billy, 'How was your school day?"' Nekvasil said.
A one-time attraction — lengthy, entertaining stopovers in exotic ports — is mostly a memory because of automation and greater efficiency.
"In New York, 50 years ago you could go right into Manhattan and tie up at the Chelsea Piers and spend a week loading or unloading," Connaughton said. "Now you go to the container yard at Port Elizabeth (N.J.), out near the Meadowlands. Nothing's there but the port, and 10 hours later you're gone anyway."
Yet a seafaring career still has plenty to offer.
For one thing, as the unemployment rate climbs, the maritime industry is hiring.
It has taken a hit from the downturn, like other sectors of the economy. But the maritime administration says about 10,000 replacements are needed in the graying officer corps, and a U.S. Coast Guard study predicts shipping trade will double or triple by 2020.
Pay and benefits can be generous. The Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City, which trains prospective officers for civilian and commercial vessels, says it has a 100-percent placement rate for graduates in positions with starting salaries averaging $10,000 per month.
Great Lakes mariners typically are on the water only six to eight months a year, so they can spend the rest of their time at home — or working elsewhere.
Tom Orzechowski, a vice president of the Seafarers International Union based in Algonac, said the industry and government should do better at recruiting youths — especially those considering the military. "We're a strong alternative to joining the armed services," he said.
Recruitment and apprenticeship initiatives are under way. The Seafarers union started a 20-week program several years ago to help unlicensed seamen earn promotions to mate.
The Great Lakes academy, overlooking Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay, is one of six state schools for officers. Enrollment this semester is 116 but there's room for more than 200, Superintendent John Tanner said.
Cadets train as deck officers — responsible for navigation and cargo handling — or engineering officers, who deal with engines, maintenance and equipment.
The curriculum blends classroom lectures with hands-on instruction. Computer-driven ship handling simulators help cadets learn the finer points of piloting 1,000-foot freighters through narrow channels.
The academy also has a 225-foot training ship, a one-time Navy and Coast Guard surveillance vessel where students get real-life experience on the Great Lakes.
Sean Schmelzer, 27, one of several cadets living aboard the ship, graduates in May with licenses that to the industry will document his seaworthiness. To Schmelzer, they'll represent "my passport to my workplace being the whole world."
"The first time I set foot on a boat," he said, "I knew it was for me."