Articles, Letters  
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What Separates Us...
by Capt. Jess
Fleeting Priorities &
Part One, The
Pilot Crisis!
By Robert Rishel
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April 2006 Volume 1, Issue 3
Last updated on 4/2/2006
What Separates Us
By Capt. Kerr A. Jess

I was home from work, on my off-time, sitting in my truck at the drive thru
of a local
Hardees, thinking. There was a young man taking my order
and he seemed very much like me; by that I mean he seemed like a
“capable” young man. He was clearly not mentally retarded or physically
stunted in any way, rather he looked to be someone who could be or do
anything. Why was he working at a Hardees slinging bacon, egg and
cheese biscuits for $5.00 an hour? I was sitting there in my $30,000
pickup truck with the view of a man commanding an income that many of
us, as towboat Captains, are now able to pull in. With Day rates for pilots
now between 350-500/day (depending upon the desperation of the
operator and the nature of the tow/route) we have the opportunity to pull
in some pretty good jack.  Seeing this young man, I wondered about the
things that separated us.
I know the obvious: years of hard work on deck; jumping through all the
USCG hoops; not having too many skeletons in the closet brought up by
an FBI background check; playing your cards right with a company;
finding a good captain to learn from; having at least a minimum of
aptitude for the job; sacrificing time with family and community to be
away working. Those are the obvious things. There is another element
though. Opportunity. Sometimes it is the lack of opportunity that has
driven us into this happy-accident of earning wages reaching deep into
college degree territory.  
I know I did not have the opportunity to go to college; financially, it was
never an option for my family. During my high school years I went to work
after school and in the summers. The jobs were always labor.
Landscaping, roofing, painting and framing. I tried it all before I was 18.
Then I came across the position of deckhand. It was a case of Lack of
Opportunity guiding me into Great Opportunity. My story is pretty
common to many other towboat pilots out there. I think most of us did not
enjoy the luxury of a college education.
Due to fallout from USCG licensing requirements, a Master of Towing
Vessels license has become a highly valuable commodity. I know that
many of us are grossing between $80-120K a year. For comparison,
within occupations listed as “Transportation and Material Moving” by the
US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics we find the following
(remember to disregard any stats for our job as they are no longer
applicable with the current pilot shortage):
We are in the same company as: Commercial Pilots, Air traffic
Controllers and Locomotive Engineers.
If we broaden our examination to include other occupations we find
ourselves in the same income bracket as: Chiropractors, Dentists,
Optometrists, Pharmacists, Veterinarians, Lawyers, Judges, Financial
Advisors, Architects and Engineers.
Every one of those occupations require many years of college and
training; a great expense to obtain. Many of these professionals start
their careers deeply in debt as a result of financing their education.
During my formative “education” as a towboat pilot I was paid. I went from
green deckhand to licensed pilot in about two and a half years. Not too
shabby, especially considering our collective educational back grounds.
Admittedly, we sacrifice a great deal for what we earn. It is a stressful,
exhausting and thankless job. We are only a visitor in our own homes
with our own families. Do I believe we deserve to be paid at the same
level as other professionals? Hell yes I do! Most of us do anyway.
So what about that guy working at Hardees? How close could I have
come to being in his shoes? All it would have taken is a few different
choices in my life and I would be asking people if they would like to ”
super-size” it, struggling to make ends meet, pitiful ends at that:
a crappy
car and a trailer with rabid dogs and naked kids running around.
Different choices and different opportunities.

-Capt. Jess