Winter in Unalaska by Sam Zmolek
Your voice in the Aleutians.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
The KUCB Newsroom provides newscasts Monday through Thursday at noon and 5 PM on KUCB Radio. You can find many of our local news stories here.

Nationwide labor shortage hits Alaska tugboats

The Millennium Star tugboat at Unalaska City Dock
Theo Greenly
The 105-foot Millennium Star tractor tug services the petroleum and fishing industries. Like on many boats in the industry, crew members have been increasingly hard to come by.

The labor shortage hitting the nation is particularly pronounced in Alaska, where the rate of unfilled positions is about twice the national average, according to the state’s labor data.

Health care, food service and hospitality are among the hardest-hit industries.

And in the Aleutian community of Unalaska, you can see it playing out with tugboat mariners.

Chris Iszler is the captain of the Millennium Star, a 105-foot tractor tug that services the petroleum and fishing industries. He’s also the regional manager for Centerline Logistics, a marine transportation company that owns the tug.

Iszler said he started as a cook 27 years ago, and worked his way up.

“Now I'm the captain and regional general manager of the operation here,” he said.

Stories like Iszler’s are pretty typical in the transportation industry. But right now, the industry is having a tough time attracting applicants for those entry-level jobs. Iszler says they’ve had one opening for more than four months, and they’ve only had a few applicants.

An entry-level cook can earn $80,000 working about six months out of the year; a highly-lucrative opportunity that doesn’t require a college degree. Still, many of those positions remain unfilled.

“We've been running without a cook on here for the last two trips,” Iszler said. “It’s not normal.”

Kimberly Cartagena works for Centerline, which owns the tugboat. They’re among the top three petroleum transportation companies in the United States, with operations on the east and west coasts, the Gulf of Mexico, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Panama Canal. She says her company is feeling the pinch.

“No matter how many places we posted in, no matter how many places we go to recruit from, there just aren't people applying for tugboat jobs,” she said.

That lack of applicants means a lack of crew, which can have deep consequences for the industry. It creates the risk of boats having to stay put.

“If you don't have enough crew members, then the vessel can't move,” explains Cartagena.

And that can ripple out to different industries. A stuck barge could result in grocery stores with empty shelves. Or cruise ships that can’t get fuel.

Although Cartagena said it hasn’t yet come to that for her company, Centerline crewmembers are forced to work more hours, longer shifts, and to run skeleton crews.

“While we have a shortage in people applying for the positions, we definitely have our long-term employees who have been here for so long and are helping us get through,” said Cartagena.

The Great Resignation is old news by now. Millions of U.S. workers have quit their jobs since the onset of the pandemic.

But a recent study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce suggests it’s more of a “Great Reshuffle.” That’s because most of the people who resigned are getting re-hired somewhere else.

Cartagena has noticed that trend. The tugboat lifestyle can be challenging, especially for people with families. Mariners sleep on the boat, so that takes them away from their relationships on shore. She says many workers have left to take jobs where they can be closer to their families.

Millenium Star Captain Chris Iszler — who is based in Dutch Harbor — told this work-around story about an ex-crewmember who took a job in Hawaii.

“They're so short on employees that they had to pull him on his off time from the Hawaii run, and bring him up here to Dutch to fill in, so they'd have a full crew,” Iszler said. “So this is during his days off … and he's out here in Alaska instead of being home with his family.”

People can enter the industry with relatively little experience. Someone fresh out of high school can earn their Merchant Mariner Credential and start off on a career track. And that kind of accessibility has the Millennium Star crew getting creative.

“We've started going through our friends. Like, ‘Hey man, do you want a freaking job?’” Iszler laughed.

And sometimes it pays off. He said the captain of another boat liked the work ethic of the person doing a bathroom remodel on his vessel, so he offered him a job.

“We're going through the hiring process with him now,” Iszler said.

Theo Greenly reports from the Aleutians as a Report for America corps member. He got his start in public radio at KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and has produced radio stories and podcasts for stations around the country.
Related Content
  • Lila Roll has been with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union since 2001. It’s taken her years to climb the ladder to become a road driver, the highest qualification for drivers. She says that qualification is the prerequisite to train to operate a top pick, a large piece of machinery designed to pick up and move large shipping containers. Roll has spent the last two weeks learning how to operate the machine. And even though it’s taken her years to qualify for this training, it will still take a number of years to truly become proficient. The union is racing to train people for all sorts of equipment, because many of the top-skilled workers are retiring.
  • Bering Sea snow crab will close for the first time in the fishery’s history. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced Monday afternoon that snow crab — also known as opilio crab — and Bristol Bay red king crab would not open for the upcoming fall and winter fishing seasons. Miranda Westphal, an area management biologist for ADF&G, said stocks are just too low to justify opening either fishery. “All of our crab stocks in the Bering Sea have seen declines the last few years,” Westphal said. “[For] red king crab, we've been seeing declines for a little over a decade now. We just see very little recruitment coming into the population — not a lot of crab maturing into a fishable size. And so we're just seeing more of that this year.”
  • Travelers can now book mid-November flights on Aleutian Airways between Anchorage and Unalaska, according to a statement released by the airline Monday morning. Prospective passengers can make reservations online through the company’s website or via local travel agents.