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Washington State Ferries in need of new recruits

A March 8 report from the ferry system states staff shortages are "unprecedented" in the ferry system's 70-year history.

SEATTLE — Officials with Washington State Ferries acknowledge it is short staffed and in need of dozens of new recruits. 

"It's not good, quite honestly. We don't have enough people to sail the vessels right now," Washington State Ferry spokesman Ian Sterling said on Monday as he stood outside the Seattle Maritime Academy. "We need to hire, train, and get people out on the water." 

The admission comes after months of delays, cancellations, and unstable service on the water, whether it be in the San Juans, Bremerton, or Vashon Island. 

Sterling also acknowledged that last year's mandates were an issue.

"That was certainly one factor, but even going into the pandemic we knew we were going to be short of employees," he said. 

A March 8 report from the ferry system states staff shortages are "unprecedented" in the ferry system's 70-year history.

While stopping short of providing figures, Sterling said the Washington State Ferry system is competing with for-profit companies, particularly for engine room crews and that the system has hired "well over a hundred people in the last six months." 

A lack of diversity, and age of the employees, were also cited as factors by Sterling and Dale Bateman, who runs the Academy in Ballard. 

Bateman said a one-year program at the Academy costs about $10,000 and a graduate can make between $70,000-$80,000 a year to start. The Academy and Washington State Ferries are teaming up to sponsor open houses on Tuesdays to solicit interest. The next one is scheduled for Tuesday, April 12, at 6 p.m.

In 2021, Washington State Ferries operated approximately 22,000 fewer sailings than 2019 - roughly 72% of pre-pandemic ridership. In January, ridership slightly decreased compared to January 2021 levels, according to the March 8 report.

Meanwhile, vessel availability has recovered, according to the March 8 report. However, availability remains at risk because of the aging fleet, according to the report. The ferry system had 24 vessels five years ago but now has 21 active vessels in the fleet.

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