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In an age with an international shortage of qualified mariners, we must create more opportunities for women in the maritime industry, and female mariners must step up, Maritime Administrator (MARAD) David Matsuda told participants at the Fifth Annual Women on the Water (WOW) Conference last month at Buzzards Bay, Mass., which was sponsored in part by G & H Towing Co.

“The conference was a phenomenal weekend for these cadets,” said Cheron Wicker, MARAD’s Director of Strategic Communications and Public Engagement, who led a conference session about mentoring and the power of networking for getting ahead in one’s career. “They were able to meet not only each other, but other women already working and succeeding in the maritime industry.”

Adds Anne Wehde, herself a graduate of the Texas Maritime Academy, and currently MARAD’s Director of Maritime Workforce Development, “This forum is extremely valuable because the cadets are able to learn more about the exciting careers that are open to them directly from successful mariners and maritime executives.”  

While it was rare at one time to see a female officer on a ship — the first woman graduated from a State maritime academy in 1976, as valedictorian of her class — today the female enrollment in license option programs at the academies can range from 12 to 20 percent, depending on the academy, and it is more common to see multiple women comprising a ship’s crew.

In addition to networking, the WOW conference also featured sessions on the advantages of membership in maritime associations and societies, the value of mentoring, and preparing to be an officer on ship. The cadets were also able to learn about the current issues affecting the maritime industry, including recent and pending regulatory changes and other issues that impact the lives of women. While careers in both government and the private sector were highlighted, this year’s conference focused on the maritime industry’s engineering professionals. The keynote speaker was Rear Admiral Sandra L. Stosz, the first female Superintendent of the USCG Academy or any of the service academies.

Career paths that women may take in the industry are varied. Upon completing their degree at one of six State maritime academies or the Federal U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., a cadet earns an unlimited USCG license which qualifies her to sail aboard the largest U.S. Flag vessels or smaller coastwise and inland vessels. In addition to sailing on voyages spanning the globe, they can work in shipyards, for an operating company, or for a classification society that establishes and maintains technical standards for the construction and operation of ships and offshore structures. They may also have seafaring jobs in government service, serving aboard military or government vessels. Petrarca, the Massachusetts Academy cadet, is still undecided but is leaning toward a Coast Guard career.

Held since 2007, the WOW Conference has significantly grown since its inception, from 50 attendees at the first conference to more than 200 this year, the largest conference to date.  Seventy-five of this year’s attendees were cadets, and after paying for transportation to the conference, their participation is entirely complimentary, covered by the conference’s sponsors.

“One reason MARAD has been so committed over the past five years is because it’s a means to ensure that women have the knowledge and the tools they need to succeed in the field,” says MARAD’s Wicker.  

Next year’s WOW Conference will be hosted by State University of New York (SUNY) Maritime College located in Fort Schuyler in Throgs Neck, N.Y., November 1-3, 2012.  Maritime College President Rear Admiral Wendi B. Carpenter, USNR (Ret.) also participated in the 2011 conference and is the only female President or Superintendent of the six State and Federal maritime academies.

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