Training for sea work Labor: Maritime workers who want to be the best at their trade come to Maryland, where the top training centers for marine officers and engineers are located.

December 06, 1998|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

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."

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