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Comment: Hiring, training, and tech advancements key to B.C. Ferries' renewal

B.C. Ferries CEO says company is focused making improvements that keep safety, reliability and affordability at the forefront
B.C. Ferries has hired 1,200 new people — 500 more than last year and the largest hiring effort in a generation. TIMES COLONIST

A commentary by the president and CEO of B.C. Ferries.

This week marks the beginning of the peak season at B.C. Ferries as our core team welcomes passengers aboard along with hundreds of new staff members, a complement of licensed professional mariners recruited from around the world and new technology aimed at making travel easier.

Will it be a flawless summer without interruption? While I wish I could promise that, customers should be prepared for intermittent ferry delays and cancellations as we continue to navigate a critical shortage of licensed officers.

We are doing our utmost to ensure smooth sailing this season as we work to resolve a series of long-term challenges. That’s why I want to outline the action we have taken, where we are going and the remaining challenges ahead.

After becoming CEO in March, it didn’t take long for me to identify B.C. Ferries’ greatest strength: our people. They are the highly trained staff who keep us safe, ensure vessels are properly outfitted and deliver year-round ferry service to coastal communities.

Unfortunately, we simply don’t have enough of them. External factors such as pandemic-related stress, the labour shortage and housing availability can be blamed for part of this.

But B.C. Ferries needs to shoulder equal responsibility for the staffing shortage. Over numerous years, B.C. Ferries allowed wages to fall behind, didn’t do enough to develop licensed mariners and didn’t respond quickly to retirements and departures.

That resulted in additional pressure on our existing team, leading to incidents of fatigue and stress.

We all saw the results last summer when crew shortages were responsible for the cancellation of more than 300 sailings. Statistically, that is only 0.7 per cent of all the summer sailings but I know the impact, and the frustration, customers feel if they’re left behind. That’s why B.C. Ferries is committed to doing better.

We are executing our largest hiring effort in a generation. There are 1,200 new people at B.C. Ferries — 500 more than last year — who are dedicated to connecting communities and customers with the people and places important to them.

This includes more than 140 recently recruited professional mariners, thanks to expanded agreements led by Transport Canada. For example, we welcomed more than 70 professional mariners from Ukraine and we expect Ottawa will soon have reciprocal agreements with the Philippines and possibly India.

This recruitment effort can’t be understated. Washington State Ferries and others around the world face the same problems navigating a global 21,000-person shortage of professional mariners.

In an industry where it can take 15 years to become a chief officer, the solutions must be long-term. In the coming five years, about 750 licensed officers will be eligible for retirement. That’s why we are working with educational institutions to train future mariners and compress the time it takes to become a licensed professional.

In addition to the new recruits, we are offering incentives to retain employees, cross-training staff so they can be deployed to high-need areas and dramatically increasing training to ensure more people have the skills to advance.

In less than a year, B.C. Ferries invested upwards of $27 million in our people. In August, we will begin discussions with the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union on wage adjustments.

Technology will play a growing role as we reshape B.C. Ferries. Over the next 12 years, we will spend $5.4 billion modernizing our fleet with cleaner, quieter vessels. We’re also planning terminal efficiencies and recently launched our new app to improve how people manage their travel.

These are just a few of the many initiatives as B.C. Ferries seeks financial stability while improving the customer experience. Everything is guided by three principles: safety, reliability and affordability.

It’s all happening as ferry demand surges. Over the past year, traffic on B.C. Ferries was at its highest level in our 63-year history — an incredible achievement.

Our commitment is to the highest level of service possible, knowing that disruptions are inevitable, especially in locations where backup crews are lean. I ask our customers for their continued understanding and offer the dedicated B.C. Ferries team my heartfelt gratitude as we navigate through this rebuilding.

The issues we face are complex, layered and may take years to fully resolve. But the work has begun as we create a robust, reliable and dependable ferry system for future generations.

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