Seward leads efforts to train maritime workforce for future

SEWARD — AVTEC, that little school at the end of the road in Seward, happens to be at the international forefront of maritime training.

Right now, the Alaska Vocational Technical Center is in the midst of its second ice navigation course — the only school in the nation to offer such a class and one of just four in the world.

Often, Alaskans have to fight to keep their fellow residents in state for education, technology or job training. In this case, Outsiders are coming to Alaska.

“We have one young lady who runs a company working with mega yachts who travels all around the world including Antarctica. We have another gentlemen who works on offshore supply vessels in Cook Inlet dealing with the ice conditions there and another young man who’s upgrading his license and wants to be prepared for the inevitable,” said Maritime Training Department Head Capt. Terry Federer. “They’re setting themselves up for opportunities with whatever companies that are going to be working in the Arctic in the near future.”

The inevitable is an International Maritime Organization recommendation — soon to become U.S. Coast Guard regulation — that will require large vessels, those 500 tons and greater, operating north of 60 degrees latitude to have a crewmember aboard with an ice navigation certification.

As a lead nation in the IMO, the United States, through the Coast Guard, must adopt its recommendations as regulation.

Federer said the ice navigation recommendation will be codified as regulation soon; he expects it within about a month. It would then be a requirement on Jan. 1, 2017.

It’s then that all the companies that work in Southcentral, whether it is freight vessels moving consumer goods to the Port of Anchorage or oil tankers working out of Valdez, will need someone with an ice navigation certification in the bridge.

As it moves through the environmental regulatory and permitting maze for Arctic offshore oil and gas exploration, Royal Dutch Shell is preparing its pilots, captains and mates for meeting the future Coast Guard requirements as well. About half of the 15 people that have taken the two-week, 80-hour ice navigation course have been Shell employees, Federer said.

Other professionals working in the Arctic, such as marine mammal observers, have expressed interest in the ice navigation course, he said.

The students master reading sea ice and everything that affects its movement — wind, current, ice thickness and location.

“You’re not teaching mariners to be mariners; you’re teaching mariners to work in an area they haven’t worked before,” instructor Capt. Bob Parsons said.

“This school is on the cutting edge of that.”

When Alaska Workforce Investment Board members toured AVTEC May 7, Shell’s mariners were attempting to navigate an ice floe as it closed off the entrance to Port Clarence on the Seward Peninsula in the three bridge simulators that are the basis for the maritime training at the school.

The $2 million investment in Kongsberg Full Mission Bridge Simulators AVTEC made back in 2001 has continued to pay off. The three ship bridges, each in adjacent rooms, are interactive and can be controlled by an instructor who monitors the students in a separate command center.

Regular upgrades have kept the simulators up-to-date and AVTEC now has software for every major port and harbor in the state, as well as simulators for more than 40 vessels.

AVTEC Director Ben Eveland said the simulators are often used to model new infrastructure designs and how ships will interact with different docks. Such a session recently concluded with Cook Inlet pilots and the team engineering the new Port of Anchorage docks, he said.

The City of Seward saved $2 million on the design of its new breakwater by modeling it in the simulators.

The contracting work and training helps pay for the whole maritime program, Eveland said.

Beyond the ice navigation course, the Maritime Training Center offers nearly two dozen Coast Guard approved courses, with seven more pending approval, according to Federer.

The school also licenses captains and mates for manning vessels up to 1,600 tons and is looking to expand into the unlimited certification realm, he said.

Across Resurrection Bay from Seward, AVTEC has a world-class marine firefighting facility, too.

But the state vocational school’s work is not limited to Seward.

“We have outreach programs where we actually send the instructors out to the schools in St. Paul, out to Naknek, and all over to do nautical skills,” Eveland said.

AVTEC also provides online courses and helps young mariners properly catalog sea time to advance their qualifications.

Eveland said the only way AVTEC is able to do all it does, not just in the maritime fields, is through industry support, either by way of funding or course direction.

Keeping that support will be critical to training enough new mariners to supply the demand in Alaska, Eveland said.

“Just like the Slope is seeing, it’s a graying of the field of people,” he said. “A lot of these people are getting out of the business and there’s a great opportunity for the Alaska maritime workforce plan to fill that void that’s coming.”

Every one of the handful of maritime industry professionals that testified to the Workforce Investment Board during its May 7 meeting in Seward used the phrase “graying of the fleet,” multiple times.

Federer said the aging workforce, combined with new and complex regulations, such as the ice navigation requirements, make it hard for prospective mariners to break into the field, or even know where to begin trying.

It’s for those reasons that the “diamond in the rough,” as he describes AVTEC, is gaining momentum.

“Things are starting to happen here that are pretty exciting,” Federer said. “It’s pretty neat that a little school in Seward, Alaska, has a course of this caliber and is attracting professional mariners at a level that even (marine) academies would not necessarily encounter.”