In the early 1990s, when Dhaval Shah was still a teenager, he started out at sea as a deck officer cadet. In India, he explained, becoming a Master Mariner was an academic program – a Masters Degree. Parents were thrilled when their children – almost exclusively boys – chose to pursue this career. Not only is it lucrative, he said, there, it’s prestigious.
“Everyone has their own reasons why they sail,” he said in a Zoom interview with qathet Living. “The money is quite sufficient, especially if you’re working at sea half the year. You have zero commute because on the ship, meals and sleeping are prescribed, essentially a balanced lifestyle our health gurus are promoting.
“There’s no stress related to commute – and no pollution. You breathe the cleanest air. There are practical parts too – if you have a family, you can spend a lot of time with them when you’re home – there’s no going to work.”
After two decades as Captain on some of the world’s largest tankers and cargo ships, he’s grappling with a problem far different than facing down storms or unruly crews. How to entice and train enough young Canadians to fill the estimated 20,000 job openings in this country’s vast marine industry, in the next eight years?
In his new position as associate dean of marine programs at BCIT, the future of Canada’s cargo shipping and passenger ferry networks rests in large part on his shoulders. Dhaval explained that societies and economies absolutely depend on reliable passenger and cargo ships – and tankers (which is not news to ferry-dependent communities such as this one). And, ships rely on their crew more than other industries.
A server doesn’t show up for a shift at a restaurant? Lunch is still served. The First Engineer doesn’t show up for his shift on a tanker? The vessel doesn’t sail – because Transport Canada regulates crewing.
BCIT is one of Canada’s very few Transport Canada-certified marine training centres. Dhaval’s programs are fairly full, but it’s not like there are hundreds of people on the waiting list.
BC Ferries famously has a crewing shortage, which is wrecking havoc on predictable sailings (see Page 31). Some of that shortage is among deck hands, which BCIT’s three-month Bridgewatch program prepares workers for (its currently free for women and Indigenous people).
A casual Saltery Bay deckhand earns $29 an hour to start – or about $60,000 a year, assuming they can get full time hours. That’s about the average salary for qathet folks working full-time, year round, according to Statistics Canada.
Some of the shortage is among more educated marine professionals. BC Ferries currently has openings for nine engineers, for example. First engineers are paid just over $50 an hour – or $104,000 a year. That’s a fairly rare salary here. Just 1,100 locals earn over $100,000 a year, Stats Canada reports.
BC Ferries isn’t your only option, of course. Many deck positions start at $70,000 or $80,000 elsewhere. Others – engineers and officers – can earn $200,000 and beyond.
In fact, under Dhaval’s leadership, BCIT added a course in “financial acumen,” because young graduates were earning so much money so fast, they were making life mistakes.
If these jobs are so fantastic, why doesn’t everyone go into the field – and solve the crewing shortage while they’re at it?
Dhaval, who is part of the industry’s Western Marine Crew Recruitment and Retention Committee, has some theories about that.
First, he said, unlike in India, the Master Mariner program in Canada isn’t well-known. That’s in spite of a coastline busy with cargo ships heading to and from Vancouver and Prince Rupert; tankers heading to Vancouver and soon, Kitimat; tugboats, fishing boats, Seaspan barges, a thriving aquaculture industry, BC Ferries, of course, and much, much more.
“When students and parents think of marine industries, they think of The Titanic. That’s where their knowledge comes from,” he said.
Second, he said, Canada is one of the few countries where marine training is a trade – which is still considered less-prestigious than an academic education by some families.
“We are considering options of evolving it into a graduate program,” said Dhaval, mentioning that training has advanced in new ways at BCIT, due to changes in the global industry that include using cleaner fuels and clean technology on board, plus the use of Artificial Intelligence. “But [degrees] come with disadvantages, too.”
And third, he said, in Canada, marine engineers and officers are still overwhelmingly men – although BCIT and the entire industry is working hard to change that through targeted recruiting and training for women, Indigenous people and gender-diverse people. Europe, he said, produces far more women mariners than Canada does.
“It’s not just about attracting people,” said Dhaval. “The biggest challenge is how to retain people working at sea. It takes incredible courage for any minority to work in an environment where they’re the only one.
“But I have worked with many women mariners, and they are the best. They’re very meticulous, they’re very hard workers, and the crews love them.”
Dhaval has only been in his position at BCIT since April of this year. He loves his work, and he is clearly on a mission to share the lifechanging magic of a career on board BC’s vessels. Hopefully, his enthusiasm will mean more locals choose to work aboard – and today’s crewing problems fade into the mist.
Pieta Woolley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, qathet Living