Make the Maritime Industry Great Again

Make the Maritime Industry Great Again
AP Photo/Frank Eltman, File

It’s no secret that an ailing infrastructure plagues the United States. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report,” the U.S. ranks 11th worldwide for infrastructure quality, while the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a D+ for infrastructure. Highways — the web-like pathway on which goods are transported — remain severely underfunded. One in 10 bridges are structurally deficient, and another 14 percent are functionally obsolete. Over 14,000 dams are considered high hazard, while half the locks used in inland waterways are more than 50 years old.

American infrastructure is crumbling before our eyes.

So it is fitting that infrastructure sits near the top of President Trump’s agenda for the first 100 days. The Trump team, in an attempt to unlock up to $1 trillion in infrastructure investments over the next 10 years, has already previewed a plan to leverage over $100 billion in federal tax credits to private investors. Incoming Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao reasserted the administration’s focus during her confirmation hearing, telling senators she planned to establish an infrastructure task force and streamline regulations tied to infrastructure projects. Ultimately, Chao will be instrumental in any plans to revitalize the U.S.’s transportation systems.

Let’s not forget, however, that a strong transportation system requires far more than just modern steel and concrete infrastructure. Any plan to bolster our nation’s ability to transport goods efficiently must take into account the most valuable asset in the system: human capital. Without truckers to drive 18-wheelers coast to coast or captains to navigate global waterways, strong bridges and modern ports are nothing more than empty roads and docks.

No sector reflects the urgent need to invest in human capital more than the maritime industry. Responsible for transporting cargo in times of peace — and troops and materiel in times of war — the U.S. merchant marine has carved out critical roles in the country’s economic and national security operations. America’s domestic maritime industry is responsible for almost 500,000 jobs and nearly $100 billion in annual economic outputs. But the country’s fleet is shrinking, and this should be of grave concern to Congress. 

A chief reason for America’s diminishing maritime capacity is its modest supply of merchant mariners. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) provides a direct pipeline to the industry and is recognized as the crown jewel of maritime training. However, over the past few years the Academy has been kneecapped by serious leadership and management issues, which have provided direct threats to the school’s accreditation. The suspension of Sea Year, the mission-critical training that prepares midshipmen to sail aboard U.S. flagged ships upon graduation, has only added to the Academy’s woes.

USMMA’s accreditation problems are unprecedented for an academic institution of such importance. Never before has an accreditor placed a Federal Service Academy on academic warning. Yet, in April 2016, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education detailed not one or two, but five areas in which the Academy is underperforming. The review committee’s report highlighted deficiencies in planning, leadership and governance, administrative staff qualifications, resource allocation, and student services; it also noted concerns with communication flow, trust, and low morale. With a check-in to evaluate progress scheduled for March 2017, one would expect the Academy to push accreditation front and center, but, instead, leadership has failed to take steps that would alleviate the situation, further tarnishing the reputation of the finest maritime training in the country. 

In June 2016, the Department of Transportation suspended Sea Year, both a graduation requirement and a prerequisite for obtaining a U.S. Coast Guard-issued Merchant Marine Officer’s license. Citing concerns for the well-being of midshipmen aboard commercial vessels, the administration maintained its position until this month, when outgoing Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx ostensibly ended the suspension. But thus far, Sea Year has been reinstated in words only; no plan exists to return midshipmen to sea on commercial vessels.

While the current Maritime Administration fails to act, students are missing out on the training they need for a profession in the maritime industry, a sector critical to our economy, and one that badly needs an infusion of human capital: fully-trained officers.

Fortunately, with a new Maritime Administration and incoming Secretary of Transportation, we have a chance to reverse past missteps. As the daughter of a commercial shipping executive, Secretary Chao understands the importance of a strong merchant marine and the value of expertly trained crew aboard ships. She is in a position to help the USMMA not only recover, but also to thrive, providing a steady flow of young, qualified mariners who will fortify and expand America’s maritime presence across the globe. Our transportation systems — and our economic and military strength — depend on it. 

Ivy Barton Suter graduated summa cum laude from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1978, the first class of women to graduate from any U.S. federal academy, and went on to earn an MBA at Harvard. Ms. Suter served as Managing Director at Alvarez & Marshal and CEO of Trailer Bridge before founding Operational Solutions, an executive leadership consultancy.

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