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HaiSea, Seaspan target tug gender diversity deficit

Haisla-shipyard partnership aims to attract more women to the province’s marine industry
Wheelhouse of a Seaspan tug docked at the company’s North Vancouver wharf

It’s time for a crew change in B.C.’s tug and barge sector.

Baby boomer retirement is a major driver of that change. But HaiSea Marine and Seaspan ULC also see a need for more than a change in age demographics in a marine industry Transport Canada estimates will need 19,000 new seafarers over the next 10 years to fill job vacancies as approximately 43 per cent of the country’s marine industry workforce retires.

Their Feb. 28 Women in Marine open house event underscored the focus of that need and what the companies see as one of the untapped human resources that could help fill those marine industry crewing vacancies in B.C.

“The marine industry has been basically made up of mostly men, and old white men for the most part,” said Jessica McHaffie, Seaspan’s manager of marine personnel. “Not a whole lot of diversity in any marine industries’ fleet.”

Paul Hilder is president of the Council of Marine Carriers (CMC), which represents the province’s tug and barge business, which includes approximately 30 member companies employing around 1,300 workers.

They moved upwards of 31 million tonnes of products through the Port of Vancouver last year.

And they, like a lot of industries in the province, are facing a human resources shortage.

B.C.’s commercial fishing industry was once a fertile training ground and feeder system for future tug and barge sector workers. But, as Hilder pointed out, that industry has all but vanished up and down the province’s West Coast. So, CMC members need to expand their HR horizons. 

Currently, Hilder said, women make up less than one per cent of the tug and barge labour pool.

So, that demographic, he agreed, is a largely untapped potential HR pool for CMC’s members.

But, as Hilder pointed out, many aspects of the tug and barge business are unlike a lot of onshore pursuits.

Tug crews are often away for two to three weeks at a time. For each day worked, they get a day and a quarter off, but that schedule does not often work well with a stable family life for male or female crew members.

However, there is a wide variety of career opportunities in the industry. The CMC has therefore joined the national Imagine Marine program, which is aimed at raising the profile of those opportunities.

Diversity and crew shortage issues go well beyond B.C.’s borders.

Chris Hall, the Shipping Federation of Canada’s (SFC) president and CEO, said in an email that “the magnitude of the problem (or opportunity) is staggering. A massive percentage of the workforce will be retiring soon, and recruitment and retention is extremely difficult across the country, despite the [industry’s] many benefits.”

According to a 2021 report from BIMCO and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), an additional 90,000 officers will be needed over the next three years to oversee the 1.89 million sailors crewing the 74,000 ships that are in the world’s merchant marine fleet.

The crew diversity deficit is also a global issue. 

According to the ICS’s November 2020 diversity tracker survey of more than 200 shipping companies around the world, 30 per cent of the respondent companies employed women in board-level roles and close to 60 per cent had female officers on board their ships. But just 7.5 per cent of those ships’ crews were female.

The HaiSea-Seaspan open house was aimed at raising the profile of B.C. tug and barge career opportunities for women; it also highlighted the technology and design of the tugboat fleet HaiSea will be using to service LNG Canada’s liquefied natural gas export terminal in Kitimat.

The fleet will include three electric harbour tugs and two larger dual-fuel, LNG-marine diesel-powered escort tugs.

HaiSea is a joint venture of Seaspan and the Haisla Nation, which is the partnership’s 51-per-cent majority owner.

The tugs, which are being built by Turkey’s Sanmar Shipyards, have been designed with more than environmental considerations in mind.

McHaffie said cultural and gender diversity was also a priority.

“A lot of the tugs, especially the live-aboard tugs, aren’t set up for diversity or inclusion of any gender other than males. There’s a lot of shared bunks, tight quarters, living spaces, shared bathrooms. And with such a low number of women in the industry, there’s a 99.9 per cent chance that you’re probably going to be the only woman on the tug or vessel due to the current numbers in the industry,” McHaffie said. “So, what we did in the design of the HaiSea tugs is that everybody has their own cabin, their own bathroom privacy.”

But it is going to take more than creature comforts in tug and other ship designs to attract more women to Canada’s marine industry.

For starters, the industry’s profile as an interesting and potentially lucrative career for women is low. Few would be aware, for example, that the starting hourly wage for tugboat deckhands is just over $40, or that annual salaries for ship captains range around $200,000.

McHaffie said the avenues to raise that awareness and increase women’s exposure to the opportunities offered in the marine industry are limited.

She added that the lack of schools in B.C. offering marine industry training courses is another major barrier facing women, and those barriers are depriving the marine industry of the skills and qualities women have to offer. McHaffie said those include “attention to detail, caring, compassion and empathy, bringing the soft skills that are needed in leadership advancement today. Just a different perspective and view on things.… For the industry to grow and stay afloat, we need to bring different genders and ethnicities into the marine industry.”

Hall agreed.

The SFC’s annual Mariners’ Workshop, which this year was hosted in Vancouver, featured a “Building a Workforce of Diverse and Tech-Savvy Mariners” panel discussion.  

Meanwhile, the Feb. 28 HaiSea open house offered attendees tours of Seaspan’s main North Vancouver dock and the opportunity to use one of HaiSea-Seaspan’s tug simulators to get an idea of what it would be like to operate and work in one of the new tugs, the first of which is scheduled to be delivered in mid-June.

A subsequent evening event featured a panel of women describing their experiences working their way up from deckhands to become master mariners.

It provided attendees with what McHaffie said was advice to other women wanting to join the marine industry as a career, “and, in turn, celebrate the successes of the women that are in the industry – paving the way for others to join.”