FROM SHIPBUILDING to commercial fishing to logistics and shipping, nearly 70,000 Washingtonians work in the maritime industry. But when it comes to the majority doing this potentially lucrative work, it’s men — predominantly white men. While women and nonbinary workers have been part of the maritime industry for generations, their numbers are small, says Sarah Scherer, with the nonprofit Transportation Institute.
“We are experiencing a silver tsunami in the maritime industry. The average age within our workforce is around 55,” says Veasna Hoy, director at Youth Maritime Collaborative. “That leaves a lot of vacancies, and a dire need to fill positions at all levels.”
Today there are local businesses, training schools and organizations working to attract younger people into the maritime industry and also ensure this generation of workers includes substantially more people of color and female-identifying and nonbinary people. More than three out of four people in Seattle-King County’s maritime industry are white, and 74% are men.
“You don’t have to have a four-year degree to be successful,” says Scherer. It can be enough to have “a short six months or two-year certificate program you can get through the Seattle Promise at the Seattle Colleges for free.”
As the maritime industry looks to recruit the next generation of workers, here are stories about the careers of several women working in the Northwest.
Fishing boat captain and maritime engineer
Years in the maritime industry: Around 20
ON A SEPTEMBER afternoon in Seattle’s Fishermen’s Terminal, Allison Demmert winterized her fishing vessel, a purse seiner named Ultimo, marking the close of her second season captaining the salmon-fishing boat. “It’s the most deeply gratifying thing I’ve ever done,” she says.
Demmert grew up in Edmonds and fished in Southeast Alaska with her family during summers. Her family, who are Tlingit from Prince of Wales Island and Tsimshian from Annette Island, have commercially fished for at least three generations and practiced subsistence fishing for many more.
Demmert says working alongside her father for 14 seasons inspired her to complete her Merchant Mariner Credential and a nine-month marine engineering certificate program at the Seattle Maritime Academy, leading to an internship with Western Towboat Co., where she worked for two years.
Last summer, an opportunity came for Demmert to captain her own fishing boat. Even with years of experience, she asked herself, “Can I do that?”
“It was really hard to visualize because I didn’t see other women doing it,” she says. “It was really empowering to see, eventually, some of my women peers start to take that step and run their own boats.”
During the past two seasons, Demmert assembled a crew of four women, including herself, and one man, and says, “When you have multiple women working together, that changes the dynamic dramatically.”
Marine chemist at Sound Testing
Years in the maritime industry: 18
AMY LIU is one of about 100 certified marine chemists in the United States. This small group of specialized workers assists shipyards with safety inspections before employees are allowed to begin vessel repairs. Liu, who works for Sound Testing, was the first woman in the country certified as a marine chemist.
“When you see a boat or a ship out there that you worked on, to know that you played a small part in getting that boat back out into the water gives me extreme satisfaction,” she says.
Ship repair companies hire marine chemists for inspections that often involve oil or fuel storage tanks or machinery where there is potential for a fire or explosion. Liu makes sure there is enough oxygen to breathe and that areas are free from combustible gases and toxins that could make people sick.
“It’s inherently dangerous work,” she says. “It takes some education.”
For Liu, it feels rewarding to be “a little piece of the puzzle” to help maritime workers return to their families safely at the end of the day.
Director of the Youth Maritime Collaborative
Years in the maritime industry: 2
VEASNA HOY, director at Youth Maritime Collaborative, has a goal to spark young people’s interest in the maritime industry.
“We’re all working together for a common goal, which is to provide awareness and expand educational and career opportunities for all youth, but primarily for youth farthest away from these opportunities,” she says.
The Youth Maritime Collaborative — supported by a range of partners like the Port of Seattle, Goodwill and local maritime agencies — offers career exploration, paid internships and adventures for students living in South King County and Seattle who might not have any maritime exposure.
“There is so much potential that needs to be ignited,” Hoy says.
Hoy, an attorney with 10 years in diversity, equity and inclusion implementation and 20 years of community advocacy, says the workforce program within a larger maritime business organization, Maritime Blue, centers on the lived experiences of students and youth leaders from communities of color. The Youth Maritime Accelerator Project’s paid summer internship connects maritime employers to students of color, ages 18-24, living in South King County, to training and careers.
Sea Potential director of youth engagement
Sea Potential director of corporate advancement
SPURRED BY THE 2020 Black Lives Matter Movement, Savannah Smith and Ebony Welborn co-founded Sea Potential “to increase awareness in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities of maritime opportunities and promote representation over assimilation within the industry.”
The co-workers met at the nonprofit EarthCorps a few years ago, and they discovered a shared passion for helping create personal connections and career pathways to marine science for youth of color.
Welborn, who is from South Carolina, says one of her most formative experiences was catching dragonflies and frogs at a creek near her childhood home.
“From that moment on, I felt called to be a steward of the natural environment,” she says.
After Welborn completed her environmental studies degree, she worked in environmental education and wildlife rehabilitation in Florida. She also earned her Advanced Open Water Certification.
Smith, who grew up in the Renton and Skyway areas, holds a bachelor’s degree in biology with a marine emphasis from Western Washington University. “Going into this predominantly white university, it was just a big culture shock,” she says. “I felt a little bit out of place and noticed the disconnect there really was for BIPOC in environmental spaces, whether that was political, professional or academic, or just community-based conversations. That is what really pushed me to start this company.”
Sea Potential focuses on two tracks: youth engagement, and organizational development to help maritime employers develop an inclusive workplace culture.
“We prioritize relationship-building and trust,” says Welborn.
Sea Potential launched a five-month program for 12- to 15-year-olds this autumn, sponsored by the Port of Seattle. Sea Potential helps youth “develop heart-based connections” to the marine environments and encourages them to be “active advocates and stewards of the land,” says Smith.
Fishing boat captain
Years in the maritime industry: 17
AFTER MONTHS OF exploring the mountains, McKenna Peterson was feeling the call of the ocean.
In June, the professional big-mountain skier arrived in Seattle after wrapping up a season heli-skiing and ski mountaineering with film crews in Alaska and the Rocky Mountains. In her captain’s chair overlooking Seattle’s Fishermen’s Terminal, Peterson was studying the tides and her logbooks. Her crew and 58-foot purse seiner would soon depart for their salmon fishing season in Southeast Alaska.
“I’m motivated by adventure,” McKenna says. “I love that every day is different, exciting. There is a certain level of unpredictability that keeps you on your toes and engaged.”
McKenna and her sister Dylan grew up fishing and skiing alongside their father, Christopher Peterson, who was also a big-mountain skier. McKenna embraced her father’s lifestyle of fishing in the summer and skiing in the winter, and she says one of his best lessons was to “stay a kid forever.”
When their father died four years ago, McKenna took over the family business and captaining the vessel. Dylan helped train this year’s crew, comprised mostly of women.
McKenna says she often has to challenge ideas that the fishing and skiing industries are both “hard-core and men only.”
She wishes more people would stop commenting on gender and just say, “Thanks for putting fish on the table.”
Port of Tacoma director of engineering
Years in the maritime industry: 10
FOR THAIS HOWARD, no one day or week is the same.
Howard has a dual role in maritime — working as the director of engineering for both the Port of Tacoma and Northwest Seaport Alliance, a marine cargo operations partnership with the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma.
She brings 28 years of engineering experience to her work, which she describes as “exciting, dynamic and changing.”
While Howard was at school in South Carolina, a teacher recognized her gift for math and science and suggested she explore engineering. Howard graduated from Clemson University and worked as an electrical engineer in Tennessee, Utah and Florida.
At the Port of Tacoma, she heads a group of project managers who lead the design, bidding and construction of projects.
“We carry the project from beginning to end,” she says.
At Northwest Seaport Alliance, Howard works with teams to modernize and increase cargo capacity at Terminal 5 in Seattle. The project will accommodate ultra-large container ships, new cranes and on-dock rail (terminals located at the port).
Howard says it is important for industry leaders to share word of opportunities in maritime. “As the workforce ages out, it is important to backfill with people who reflect the communities that we live in,” she says.
Welder at Pacific Fishermen Shipyard
Years in the maritime industry: 25
GLORIA GUERRA, a mother of three and grandmother of four, started her welding career at 18 after moving to the Northwest.
She landed her first job at the Lockheed shipyard, making $10.50 an hour working on Navy ships. In less than a year, a car accident upended her newly established career. After recovering from the crash, Guerra pivoted careers and pursued her cosmetology license.
When her youngest son, Nathaniel, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 4½, Guerra decided to transition back to welding. She wanted a job with benefits and a pension. She soon brushed up on her welding credentials and joined Boilermakers Local 104.
After 25 years of welding at different boatyards, Guerra now works at Pacific Fishermen Shipyard in Ballard. Nathaniel, who followed his mother’s footsteps into maritime and is now free of cancer, works alongside her.
“It’s pretty special to work beside him,” says Guerra.
Guerra says her welding career has allowed her to provide for her family, purchase a home and work on a variety of projects, like fishing vessels, that help keep the economy moving.
“We kind of hold the world together,” she says.
Journeyman Boilermaker Level 1 (or Journeyman Boilermaker Supervisor)
Years in the maritime industry: 3
A MOBILE BLOOD DRIVE brought phlebotomist Caitlin Batson to Vigor’s Harbor Island shipyard in Seattle in 2017.
While drawing blood, Batson was drawn to the shipyard employees’ humor and genuine natures. She wasn’t happy in her current job, and a few workers encouraged her to explore the Maritime Shipyard Welding program at the Harbor Island Training Center.
Now employed at Vigor for 3½ years, Batson works as a supervisor for Navy vessel repair projects. Her days begin early, 4 a.m., on the Seattle waterfront. In her role, she lends support and knowledge, and she guides people tasked with big decisions while working on the fabrication and repair of vessels.
“I’ve learned how to use my voice,” she says.
Growing up, Batson says, “even with having wonderful and encouraging parents, I didn’t realize that any type of trades — be it construction or ship repair — was an option for me as a girl. That was super limiting to me until I had direct exposure and encouragement.”
Batson, a member of Boilermakers Local 104, said the union’s membership was about 2% women as of 2019. But in the past few years, she says, she has seen an increase in women working at Vigor, and she wants to see more women and people of color in the metal trades.
Vessel project engineer at Washington State Ferries
Years in the maritime industry: 17
WHILE MARITIME WORKERS took their lunch break on a September day, Amber Smith slipped onto the Kaleetan ferry dry-docked at Vigor’s Harbor Island shipyard. Smith, a vessel project engineer at Washington State Ferries, examined the work in progress, ranging from the ship’s navigation deck to the underwater hull.
Smith works with a team to manage and administer scheduled maintenance for Washington state’s ferries. She develops specifications so shipyards can perform the work, and she facilitates schedule changes. Smith, who spent most of her career as a project manager, says she didn’t expect to work in maritime.
“I didn’t grow up boating or on the waterfront,” she says. “But, I knew people in the industry and that got me in the shipyard, and I never left.”
Smith says her previous business and project management experience helped “fill a required skill set that was needed” in the shipyard.
“If you like to work with people, if you like work to work with hands, like to be outdoors and challenged, it’s a fun work environment,” she says.
Lt. Cmdr. Michelle Rosenberg
Chief of investigations division at Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound
Years in the maritime industry: 14
LIEUTENANT COMMANDER Michelle Rosenberg, chief of investigations division at Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound, has driven cutters on the Atlantic Ocean, inspected vessels in the Gulf of Mexico and helped expand Coast Guard health-care policies in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve had a pretty dynamic and fortunate career,” she says.
Rosenberg leads a marine-casualty investigation team for parts of Washington and Montana. A few years ago, at age 34, Rosenberg and her husband had difficulties trying for a pregnancy. She worried she had waited too long for motherhood while trying to advance to a stable career. With time, Rosenberg conceived and gave birth to her first child, Nick. Her second, Willy, followed 17 months later. While there are significant challenges, Rosenberg wants women in the Coast Guard to know that having children and a career is possible, but expanded support is needed.
“Being in the maritime sector is challenging and difficult work,” says Rosenberg. “It can be labor intensive, especially starting out, and that’s not a conducive pairing with motherhood. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices and choices so you can continue to progress within your career path, but motherhood is possible.”
While Rosenberg works with women in leadership who have families, she says it’s not uncommon for women to leave the Coast Guard between the 10- and 14-year career marks, often coinciding with childbearing years. She believes the Coast Guard has made “significant progress,” by expanding primary-caregiver leave, deployment deferments for mothers who have recently given birth and incorporating “forward thinking” lactation policies.
She says the maritime sector needs to be more “innovative and creative” with child-care affordability, availability and infrastructure — including making child-care subsidies more accessible and flexible. “Money invested in your people, time invested in policies to help make it easier for mothers or women in general, it can pay dividends and help with workforce retention.”