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Looming crisis seen for maritime jobs as workers near retirement age

SEATTLE — Washington’s unemployment rate is at a nine-year low, shattering expectations and boosting the economy

But there is a crisis emerging for the jobs out on the waters of Puget Sound and beyond.

The maritime industry says the average mariner is 52 years old, inching closer to retirement.

There's a point of pride for Washington and Seattle -- jobs on the water are something special.

But they aren't for everybody.

“I didn't know we were going to see flares and all that," said Tyree Washington from Garfield High.

He was one of hundreds of students at the Maritime Academy in Ballard Thursday. The hands-on showcase is more than just a field trip, it's a desperate call for help

“I don`t even know what to tell you if we don`t have those people to backfill. Everybody`s daily life will be affected,” Sarah Scherer with the Academy said.

From our Apple phones to shipping apples overseas, the port is an economic lifeline. Thousands of workers on ships and docks are creeping closer to retirement. In fact, half of ferry workers are at retirement age right now, so perspective on the maritime trades have to change.

Here's the secret -- people in the industry say you don't need to go to college -- and you'll make good money

“If a qualified member of the engineering department is out there and they`re not working, it`s because they don`t want to be,” Scherer said.

She explained that workers can earn $45,000-75,000 right out of school for just a six-month shift. That's enough for Tyree to give it some thought.

“Good pay,” he said with a laugh.

The project is looking for 150 interns, and one of them is expected to be Abdi Farah. He's off to Central Washington next year, but he's already getting a leg up alongside aging maritime workers.

“Everybody just looking at us saying `you guys from high school?` We like, just say yeah and oh that`s really nice---we`d never get this chance before & you guys are lucky,’” Farah said.

The region's unemployment rate is sitting at 3.5% -- more than a full percent better than the national average. A good headline but very soon job vacancies in the trades here are going to skyrocket.

“In the next 10 years, we`re going to have a mass retirement,” Scherer said.

It goes back to that perspective of pushing kids to expand their horizons and knowing there's a paycheck to be had out on the water for everyone

“I think we`ve done a disservice as a society to tell kids that if they don`t get a bachelor`s degree, they`re a loser,” Scherer said.