The Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies, a $47 million training center for merchant sailors, is turning to the conference trade to pay its bills and survive the decline of the U.S. shipping industry.
The institute began offering its 228-room hotel, a 268-seat auditorium, 38 meeting rooms, an indoor pool and recreation facilities to outside groups in 1987. Today, nearly 600 training seminars and conferences are booked each year, paying 70 percent of the institute's $6.5 million operating costs.
Among the groups to hold conferences there are the Mass Transit Administration, the Maryland State Police, the University of Maryland and Loyola College, among others.
The institute was built on 80 acres off Hammonds Ferry Road in Linthicum Heights 22 years ago by the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots to train about 1,000 merchant seamen a year in navigation, computer technology, oceanography, firefighting, shipboard medicine and personnel management.
Its two ship-handling simulators, which cost $12 million, mimic the operations on the bridge of a ship.
The shipping companies that employ Masters, Mates & Pilots members pay for the training their employees receive.
But increasingly the companies are exchanging their U.S. flags for foreign flags and foreign crews to save money.
Since 1970, the number of U.S.-flag vessels has plummeted to 350, from 840; the number of jobs for seamen has dropped to 9,165, from 40,248.
The loss of U.S. crews means the loss of students to the Maritime Institute, said Capt. Charles R. Pillsbury, executive director of the institute.
Already the institute has had to cut back its instructors from 13 to nine. The institute supports an overall staff of about 100.
These days, the captain looks for alternative ways to make the institute viable.
New courses stressing environmental and safety issues are being offered. And the institute has started to train seamen outside the Masters, Mates & Pilots union, including some foreign mariners, although it is unlikely they will ever account for a large percentage of the students, Captain Pillsbury said.
But the real salvation for the institute will come only with the salvation of the country's maritime industry, Captain Pillsbury said. He is hoping that maritime reform legislation being considered by Congress will save U.S. crews and his potential students.
In November, the House of Representatives passed legislation calling for appropriations of $200 million a year to subsidize the operations of U.S.-flagged vessels to make them more competitive with foreign-flagged ships. But the legislation has since stalled.
Meanwhile, Sea-Land Service Inc. and American President Cos., two of the largest shippers in the United States, are asking permission to reflag much of their fleet in foreign
countries to avoid tough U.S. regulations, taxes and high labor costs.
Reflagging the vessels as they have requested would mean the loss of 900 American jobs.
It also threatens national security, proponents of the support programs say, because only U.S.-flagged ships can carry supplies and weapons for U.S. troops in the event of an international conflict.
Merchant Marines, for example, oversaw shipments to U.S. troops during the Persian Gulf war, Captain Pillsbury said.
He questioned whether trained seamen would be available should another crisis arise. "Everyone just assumes that these people are going to come out of the woodwork," he said.