WSDOT seeks new ferry employees as shortages loom; 88% of captains eligible to retire within 10 years

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. -- The population spike in Puget Sound is spilling onto Washington’s ferries.

“There are way too many people here,” ferry rider Charles Koog said.

By riding the ferry, Koog shaves off two hours from his commute every day from Seattle to Kitsap County.

“There are no houses on this side for people. They have to move to places like Kitsap County and areas like that,” Koog said.

But what if there weren’t enough ferry workers to get Koog across? That’s the question the Washington State Department of Transportation  is struggling with.

In five to 10 years, 88% of ferry captains are eligible for retirement. But Washington State Ferries is also short on deckhands up top to engineers below.

“You have to have a certain amount of trained employees on board, as you should, (or) we can’t sail. We are seeing the shortages of employees,” WSDOT spokesperson Ian Sterling said.

WSDOT is now looking outside of maritime schools, telling young people about the competitive salaries and benefits that come with working on a ferry.

“The good news you can get to go home every night and in the maritime industry that’s a rarity,” Sterling said.

But convincing young people won’t be easy.

“It’s seems like a dying business,” 16-year-old Rork Enters said.

It’s not a career Rork is interested in. He already knows he wants to get into the medical field. But he thinks other young people could be convinced if WSDOT keeps getting the word out.

“They can clearly turn it around but it could get to the crisis mode where the costs have to go up,” Katheryn Enters said.

The Enters family hopes more people will jump on board.

The ferry system is vital for their commute from Bainbridge Island to Seattle, a trip they’ve made six times in the past week.