By Mike McClure

Around a year and a half ago, two of the Woodland Ferry’s captains retired, one for medical reasons and one for time of service. As a result, the ferry has been operating at reduced hours on weekdays, sometimes closing due to the lack of a second or third captain.

According to Alistair Probert, head engineer for DelDOT in Sussex County, the jobs have been posted many times and interviews have been done. Not many people in the area have the special 100 ton U.S. Coast Guard license required for the job, but a few people who were tug boat operators from larger metropolitan areas such as Baltimore and Philadelphia have applied. Unfortunately, the salaries being offered for the positions couldn’t compete with the private sector and the applicants weren’t interested in the positions.

The Woodland Ferry has been down to one captain for the past year and a half. DelDOT is looking to increase the salary to help attract potential captains for the two vacancies caused by retirement.

Probert is working with state Human Resources department to create a new ferry boat captain classification, essentially creating a position that does not currently exist. This would allow the state to pay a greater amount for the open positions.

The state is currently assessing the proposed new job requirements. If approved, the positions would be reposted with the new salaries. So far, Probert has not received any negative response from the state.

Like a lot of organizations and businesses, DelDOT is struggling to fill open vacancies. Some areas of the agency have as much as a 40 percent vacancy rate.

“I think everybody has those employee shortages,” said Probert.

When the ferry captain vacancies came up, DelDOT looked at the pool of people working for the organization but no one was interested. Testing and online classwork is required to get a Coast Guard license, as well as logging a massive amount of hours on a similar size boat. An applicant could serve on an appropriate size boat in order to get the required hours.

DelDOT is also working to repair the house where the ferry captains work out of as another enticement for future captains. Work on the aging structure is going through the permitting process. If approved, the house will be ADA compliant, have more storage, and will be a better structure.

“I think we’re making some good progress on it,” Probert said. “I do feel fairly confident that it’s going to happen.”

The ferry currently operates from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday with no weekend hours. Once fully staffed, it will run from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., another reason DelDOT wants to improve the captains home (because of the amount of hours they are in it).