Ferry Business - Autumn/Winter 2022

7 8 There hasn’t been a dull day since Patty Rubstello took over from Amy Scarton as assistant secretary for the ferries division of Washington State Department of Transportation in January 2021. The pandemic has left a deep mark on Washington State Ferries (WSF), both in terms of ridership and staff turnover – a worldwide phenomenon in the transport sector. Remote working remains the new normal in Washington and according to WSF’s last projection, it will take around five years before the ridership is back to pre-Covid level (close to 24 million passengers), making WSF one of the world’s leading ferry operators. In 2020, passenger numbers plummeted by 41.4 per cent to 13.9 million before improving in 2021 to reach 17.2 million. The 2022 ridership forecast is on track to be similar to 2021 as the USA’s largest ferry system has been marred by staff shortages, which has resulted in delayed and cancelled sailings. “Covid-related crewing challenges mean that we don’t have enough staff to provide all of our services, so we’ve had to scale them back,” explains Rubstello. “We are actively trying to recruit and train up staff so that we can get back to full service. In 2020, we sent home our senior staff who were considered ‘high risk’, which initially curtailed our service, and then people were contracting Covid and we weren’t able to recruit additional staff due to difficulties with training. Last year, our governor decided that all state employees had to be vaccinated and there was a sizeable proportion of our staff who didn’t want to be inoculated, so we lost 130 people overnight in midOctober. Although it doesn’t seem like 130 people out of a total of nearly 2,000 is a lot, all of them were licensed officers with multiple credentials and years of experience at sea and you can’t just pluck that type of person off the street.” WSF requires all captains to have pilotage [exemption] which takes quite a significant amount of time to obtain, says Rubstello. “Even if we can find a captain from a cruise ship or an oil tanker, they still have to obtain their pilotage before they can actually captain our ferries.” On a positive note, the jobs offered by WSF are fairly attractive. “Unlike in the merchant navy, our officers and crew can go home every day,” explains Rubstello. “They get a stable lifestyle and because of that, people want to work for us. Yet, the pilotage remains a stumbling block – it can take eight to 12 months to get it. “When coming into this role in January 2021, it shocked me that WSF didn’t pay its staff to get trained. Instead, captains had to pay themselves to obtain the pilotage and also had to complete training in their own time. Nowhere else in our agency did we ever do this. We knew if we wanted people to stay with us, we had to pay for their training and that’s one of the significant things we’ve changed.” Staff shortages will remain critical in the longer term as 45 to 50 per cent of WSF’s employees are now close to retirement. “For this reason, we need a better system to rise people through the ranks as we will start losing more of our most senior folk,” says Rubstello, Patty Rubstello explains to Philippe Holthof how Washington State Ferries, the USA’s premier ferry operator, is preparing to rejuvenate its fleet and implement hybrid-electric propulsion, despite facing staffing challenges Shifting into high gear FEATURED INTERV IEW