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Working on the Water

April 13, 2015

By: Stephen Waguespack

Louisiana’s residents have always enjoyed having fun on the water in the Sportsman’s Paradise, but a new study shows that more of our people can enjoy a successful career on it also.

Louisiana recently ranked No. 1 in export intensity and export growth among the 50 states, sending an estimated $59 billion in goods abroad in 2014. Much of this commerce is taking place on Louisiana’s waterways. The state transfers 500 million tons of cargo every year, ranking Louisiana No. 1 in waterborne commerce that accounts for 20 percent of the national total.

The maritime industry is an invisible giant in Louisiana with a sizeable economic impact on the state and the nation. An estimated one in five jobs in Louisiana is connected to the maritime industry, which has an $11 billion total annual economic impact in the state. In fact, Louisiana is the only state to post more than $10 billion in total gross economic output directly related to its maritime industry.

Louisiana leads the nation in overall numbers and concentration of maritime jobs, which frequently pay above the U.S. average. Louisiana is the top employer of captains, mates, pilots of water vessels, sailors, marine oilers and ship engineers. Louisiana ranks second in the number of crane and tower operators and third in tank car, truck and ship loaders. Louisiana employs ship engineers at a rate 12 times higher than the rest of the country.

Like so many other sectors of the economy in Louisiana, a shortage of qualified workers is the primary challenge facing the maritime industry. An aging workforce, technological advancements, growth in offshore energy production in the Gulf of Mexico, the expanded Panama Canal and historic industrial expansion across the state are factors that will compound the workforce shortage even further. As maritime businesses seek to expand and add jobs, projects and investments will be put at risk if a skilled workforce is not on site to execute.

In recognition of this challenge, LABI partnered with the Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS) to produce a study on the maritime workforce, which was released last week and is available on our website, The findings and recommendations in the report were generated from an analysis of workforce projections, a survey of more than 50 maritime companies and research on best practices across the country.

Official occupational projections show tremendous availability of maritime jobs in the years ahead. LABI’s survey of 50 maritime companies indicates these employers will need to fill as many as 3,000 jobs in the next five years alone.

More than half of LABI survey respondents indicated that the minimum educational requirement for these workers is high school or less. Instead, the maritime industry requires basic skills training and licensing for even the most entry-level positions. American mariners are required to hold individual licenses known as the Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC), which the Coast Guard issues to certify mariner qualifications for a five-year period. To earn a MMC and the appropriate credentials for every level of work, mariners must complete regular training from course providers also approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.

By a large margin, Louisiana employers are providing this training to their workers – either through in-house programs or by contracting with two-year public colleges, proprietary schools, or partner companies in the maritime industry. One interviewee noted: “In five to six years, the right worker will earn a six-figure salary – all with training funded by industry.”

The LABI-LCTCS study focuses on the State of Louisiana’s maritime training, which is conducted primarily through two-year schools and is usually conducted on a contract basis with private companies. In fact, two-year colleges with maritime programs report they rely on companies to fund an estimated 90 percent of all training courses.

The vast majority of state maritime training takes place in three institutions within LCTCS: Delgado Community College in New Orleans, Fletcher Technical Community College in Houma, and South Central Louisiana Technical College in Morgan City. Nearly all of these courses are taken individually and tailored for licensing and credentialing requirements and are designed to meet the needs of the employers.

The current approach – customized training to employers – is critically important for industry, and the colleges are generally meeting that need for certain employers. The strong relationships with industry and the history of partnership and responsiveness cannot be over-emphasized. Yet, there are a few key areas in need of improvement.

First, a substantial number of companies appear unaware of LCTCS training programs or do not choose to utilize it. Second, there is no overarching effort to link the schools, no standard curriculum and no statewide credential or marketing of LCTCS maritime programs. Third, there is little market reach outside the state for Louisiana’s maritime training either, despite the available jobs. Finally, there has been little concerted effort to provide entry points for non-traditional students that may desire a maritime career who are not yet employed, for veterans exiting the military and seeking a new career, and for K-12 students or that want to begin maritime careers as students at a two-year or four-year college.

Despite these challenges, the business community and community and technical colleges are collaborating at unprecedented levels. It is through this mutually beneficially effort that the needs of the maritime industry can be met, and more Louisianans will have the opportunity to take advantage of high-wage, high-growth jobs. LABI will continue to work with our partners at LCTCS to follow through on the recommendations in the maritime workforce study and support employers across Louisiana as they tackle the challenge of recruiting and retaining a skilled workforce.

Our unique Sportsman’s Paradise is a resource that serves our state in many meaningful ways, including helping to further tremendous commerce and trade. The maritime industry should no longer be an invisible giant, but seen clearly as the economic development engine that it is, providing our state, and its workers, with remarkable opportunity. Success in this industry is good for everyone. A rising tide lifts all boats.