With about one-quarter of Washington State Ferries’ 1,800 employees eligible for retirement within five years, new training simulators in Ballard are part of an aggressive recruiting effort to draw new employees — and help current employees get ready for more advanced roles.
Two men stood in the bridge, one at the ship’s navigation system, one acting as a lookout, scanning the horizon.
“Five contacts, one large vessel, starboard bow,” the lookout said. “One vessel three points off of our port quarter.”
The quartermaster helmsman at the controls shifted direction.
“Ahead is one-three-four,” he said. “Continue right to one-five-zero.”
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Down in the engine room, there was a problem — an alarm was going off. A lube oil filter was blocked. One of the men in the engine room — an oiler — called up to the bridge to let them know he was opening a valve to bypass the filter and going to check out the problem.
Another call to the bridge: A wiring harness had fallen off the filter. It’d be about a 10-minute fix.
None of the ship’s passengers noticed any of it. There were no passengers. There wasn’t even a ship. All the action was happening at two new training simulators at the Seattle Maritime Academy in Ballard.
With about one-quarter of Washington State Ferries’ 1,800 employees eligible for retirement within five years, the simulators are part of an aggressive recruiting effort, not just to draw in new employees, but to help current employees train for more advanced roles aboard the system’s 22 — soon to be 24 — ships.
Two Seattle Maritime students worked the bridge simulator — steering an imaginary 82-meter research vessel through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, relying on a semicircle of 15 high-definition screens to show their surroundings. In the engine room were Harlow Wood and Gabe Gaubert, two employees of Washington State Ferries who are designing a curriculum for Ferries staff to use to fine-tune their skills on the new simulators.
Ferries employees will begin training in March on the bridge simulator, which opened in November. They’ll start training on the engine-room simulator, which opened last month, shortly after that. Through an agreement with the Maritime Academy (part of Seattle Central College) Ferries will have access to the simulators, the only ones of their kind in the region, for 60 days a year.
About 70 percent of Ferries’ chief engineers are eligible for retirement within 10 years, as are nearly 90 percent of staff masters (captains).
“We have a lot of smart people, very experienced, but they’re getting ready to retire,” said Matthew Von Ruden, Ferries’ director of vessels. “We want to capture that knowledge from them before they leave, and this simulator will allow us to do that.”
Most of those 1,800 employees, for instance, have never had to perform emergency maneuvers or deal with a man overboard.
“We can do things in here that we don’t want to do out on the boats,” said Wood, a chief mate, and the lead in developing Ferries’ program for the bridge simulator.
Gaubert spelled it out more concretely.
“What do you do when somebody falls overboard on the starboard side?” he asked. “Well, you don’t want to turn to the left, I’ll tell you that much, because then you’ll blend them up in the propeller.
“These are things you can’t see everyday, and you don’t want to, but you want that experience.”
After system reliability — making sure the ferries run on time, without missed sailings — workforce development is the top priority of Amy Scarton, the new leader of Washington State Ferries.
“We want to hire and retain the most motivated workforce that we can,” Scarton said. “We need to keep and train the motivated people we have, but really we need to recruit in big numbers to bring the ferry system into the next generation.”
Scarton replaced Lynne Griffith, who retired in January after leading Ferries for two years.
There are a few big projects underway at Ferries. They will launch a new Olympic-class 1,500-passenger, 144-car ship this summer on the Seattle-to-Bremerton route. Another new ship will come on line in 2018, and Ferries is planning major rebuilds on two of its busiest docks — in Seattle and Mukilteo.
But Scarton, a lawyer who came to the state Department of Transportation three years ago after nearly 15 years working for Congress members, committees and the federal Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., said she’s not planning any big changes for Ferries, which carried more than 24 million riders and 10 million vehicles last year.
“Ridership is up, missed sailings are down, labor relations have improved,” she said. “I’m not coming in with a sweeping mandate to change; I’m coming in to stay the course.”