The place where Ross Wilkinson works is always changing. The name differs from year to year, his colleagues vary from month to month, the location shifts constantly all over the globe. Wilkinson is a marine engineer, his office the greasy insides of a ship at sea.
"Things get stale if they don't change," said Wilkinson, a 43-year-old Seattle native who first went to sea when he was 20. "I like it this way."
But change also is threatening to put Wilkinson out of a job. American shipboard labor is the most expensive in the world, and steamship lines continue to remove their vessels from the American fleet to hire foreign crews.
The way to fight the trend, Wilkinson figures, is to make sure he's a better maritime laborer than the rest.
And so he comes to Maryland.
On the shores of the same Maryland waters that have been the workplace of the American merchant marine for centuries are the training centers for two of the nation's dominant labor unions for marine officers. Captains and mates from across the country come to Linthicum to learn new navigation and ship's management techniques; engineers like Wilkinson visit the Eastern Shore to study better ways to keep ships in operation.
They take no apprentices, only experienced veterans. And the centers are more than just trade schools; they are the unions' line of defense against an evolving maritime trade threatening to pound them into obsolescence.
"We're not here just trying to meet a set of Coast Guard standards, we're trying to set an American standard that's the best in the world," said Peter Hammond, director of the Calhoon MEBA Engineering School near Easton. "The companies don't want to turn over a $120 million ship that's got $800 million worth of cargo on it to just anybody. We want to give them the best option."
The Calhoon school, on the Miles River, is run by the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, a union of certified marine engineers. Its students-- all members of the union -- learn how to operate and maintain propulsion plants, refrigeration systems, and other technology that keeps a ship moving and working.
The Marine Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies in Linthicum is run by the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, a union for deck officers such as captains and navigators. Its students train on new navigational equipment, or study how to manage and maneuver vessels of various sizes and designs.
The two unions represent the bulk of the United States' licensed merchant marine. They are about the same size -- about 4,000 active members apiece -- and their members serve aboard most American-flagged ships involved in international trade.
Much of what the two schools teach is either required of merchant seamen by federal or international regulations or designed to help them upgrade their licenses for better assignments. But both unions also use the centers to create a labor pool that is trained and certified beyond the level required by law -- or even the level requested by American-flagged shipping lines.
At the Calhoon school, Wilkinson was learning a method of tungsten inert-gas welding used to bond exotic metals like stainless steel. He frequently welds on the ships he sails, but using more conventional methods.
"It's not something I'll do all the time, but I'll be able to when the need comes up," he said. "You can't call someone to fix things when you're at sea."
Massachusetts resident Bijan J. Emami has sailed many ships on the open sea during his on-and-off career as a bridge officer, but he'd never experienced anything like the cross-currents on the MITAGS ship simulator.
Emami's mission was to pilot a simulated 813-foot container ship through the Pacific Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal. A 2-knot current would sweep across the channel's entrance and four other ships would be coming out. Emami would make his approach at night.
From the outside the simulator looks like a lunar lander inside a planetarium, but the interior looks like a ship's bridge -- complete with communication and navigation systems, steering and engine controls. Giant screens surrounding the unit give the look of actual channels and obstacles from the inside. A hydraulic platform can make the "ship" pitch and roll.
For 20 minutes, he scurried around the bridge, looking at the radar screen or out the windows at the buoys and giving commands to his crew of fellow students. "Left 10. Left 20," he said as the current took hold, his voice rising with each order. "Hard Left!" he shouted, as the right channel markers eased toward his starboard bow.
The instructor stopped the drill once the ship was safely in the canal. A success, he called it. Emami exhaled loudly and smiled. "Well, I didn't paint the buoys."
Under normal circumstances, a ship traversing canals and channels would have a local pilot on board, so the course gave Emami a feel for something he wouldn't otherwise experience. Like most students, he considered it valuable knowledge that might one day get him out of a jam. "Plus," he said, "it can help me get a job."
As union schools, the two academies are concerned primarily with keeping their members employed -- not a simple charge in the modern merchant fleet. American-flagged vessel operators estimate that it costs an extra $3 million a year to keep a ship in the American fleet, most of it from increased labor charges.
The unions know their workers are an expensive global option, so they have re-jiggered their course over the past two decades to offer American-flagged vessel owners specialized technical training available few places in the world.
Energy Transportation Corp. in New York counts on the Calhoon school to staff its fleet of Liquefied Natural Gas tankers -- ships that require complicated cargo containment systems and special certification to load and operate.
The Calhoon school is equipped with a large one-cylinder marine diesel engine it installed when diesel first replaced steam as the favored propulsion system of the merchant fleet. Today, the school trains students on gas-turbine engines -- the next generation of technology.
Since Global Positioning System satellite technology became accurate enough to pinpoint a location within one meter, pilots in Delaware have used GPS devices to help navigate channels. But before the Delaware River and Bay Pilots Association will let anyone use the device on a real ship, they must try it for a week in the MITAGS simulator.
"It's a much safer way to train," said Capt. Tom Cluff, a Delaware pilot. "Now every pilot has one. It's as important as radar is in dense fog."
A third dominant labor union for merchant mariners, the Seafarers International Union, also has its training center in Maryland -- the Paul Hill Center for Maritime Training and Education in Piney Point. The union represents unlicensed mariners such as stewards, wipers and deck hands, and the school trains many beginners who have never been to sea. Like the other schools, the SIU's Lundeberg School offers training for Coast Guard certifications, or to allow members to upgrade their job skills.
That three labor unions responsible for the bulk of the American merchant marine all train their members in Maryland is mostly a consequence of geography and coincidence. All three schools were founded about 30 years ago to keep up with the labor demand for the Vietnam sea-lift, and chose sites located in the middle of the East Coast and close to their Washington offices.
But while several academies around the country train merchant mariners, the Maryland schools are unusual in the amount of money union members pay to attend: none.
Training for union workers is tuition-free, with food and lodging provided by on-site hotels that each school maintains. Some students are paid a stipend and earn vacation and pension credits while in training. The officers schools train about 100 people at a time, with courses that typically last one to six weeks.
The schools are financed mostly or entirely by the ship owners who hire the unions' members. Union contracts require the American steamship lines to contribute money to the schools' budgets for each day a union member works on board one of their ships.
The relationship can be strained at times, particularly when the unions are renegotiating labor contracts with the steamship lines. But when the companies need to man a new ship or employ new technology, they typically look to the schools for help.
"The companies are turning to the schools for training all the time," said Tom Percival, director of labor relations and training for American Ship Management, a California firm responsible for managing and staffing U.S.-flagged ships for American President Lines. "The carriers need specialized training for the ships and equipment they use, and those schools are very highly regarded for providing it."
Percival used to sail as an APL engineer, and like most MEBA engineers employed during the industry's steam-to-diesel transition 20 years ago, attended Calhoon several times.
"The schools build their courses around the needs of the companies," he said. "In the early 80s, I don't know what we would have done without them."
Pub Date: 12/06/98