Francis W. Cunningham

Deputy Director CIVMAR Manpower & Personnel, Military Sealift Command
Frank Cunningham is is responsible for all crewing and training requirements for Military Sealift Command’s government owned/government operated vessels. At the time of his accession to the position in June 2011, his responsibilities encompassed the recruiting, labor relations and human resources servicing for a workforce of federal civil service mariners, numbering 5,500, who crew 50 Navy ships worldwide.

Frank Cunningham (Photo courtesy of Military Sealift Command)

When we talk to nearly any maritime company today, leaders generally cite finding and keeping qualified talent as their top challenge. Is this the same for MSC, and if so, what is your strategy to find and retain the people that you want?

Yes, we have similar challenge particularly in the engineering and deck officer positions. These are very skilled and talented individuals, thus are highly desirable in the market place. MSC offers long careers and pays very well as well as excellent job security and benefits. Our overall retention rate is 93%, however in the officer positions this is more like 90%. So we work hard to over recruit at the officer entry level positions and train individuals to move up quickly.  


When 'selling' MSC careers to prospective mariners, what would you say are the organization's best qualities and drawing power?

MSC offers a variety of ships, a career, job security and the best benefits any employer can offer. We currently operate 52 civil service mariner-crewed ships of multiple types and classes. This allows individuals to learn different engineering plants, ship operations and grow in their career. MSC vessels operate worldwide and stay in port much longer than commercial ships. This allows mariners to go ashore and actually see the world.


Give us a quick snapshot of the make-up of MSC mariners.

MSC currently employs approximately 5,500 civil service mariners.  (The supplied graphic provides numbers and demographics.)


How many of your officers emanate from the U.S. state and federal maritime academies?

Approximately 80%. We have about 900 total officers.


What's your retention rate? On deck? In the engineroom? Officers vs. crew? What can you do to improve those numbers and performance?

Retention overall is 93%, lower in the officer rankings (90%). We are working more on improved strategies in the officer ratings as these are critical to operating the ships safely. Working with individual to assign them to desired vessels, work on new ship construction projects, and more training opportunities. Timely reliefs is the most crucial area we work to ensure individual get home for family events and well-earned vacation. This is challenging in peak seasons such as summer and holidays but one of required areas to improve on.


Rapid advancement of one's license has always been a hallmark of MSC service. Is that still the case?

Absolutely. It is one of our selling features in recruiting.


The breadth and diversity of your fleet - from range instrumentation to tankers to general cargo and myriad other platforms - gives MSC the ability to draw from a wide range of specialty mariners. Once in service, do mariners have good opportunities to move from one sector to another?

Yes, we encourage that in the beginning of one's career but find after time individuals center to their desired ship class and we respect that as best we can. Ships are becoming more specialized and require more training per ship class so it is not as easy to move from one class to another, yet we still work hard to place an individual where they want to be.


The MSC recapitalization program has greatly modernized the fleet in terms of what it was just two decades ago. What's the average age of your tonnage now?

We have quite a range. T-AO class is 25 years plus. The T-AKE class is new and under 10, and the JHSV and MLP variant classes are under construction.  We have some former Navy vessels (AS, AFSB(I) ) that are closer to 40.


Better amenities for afloat crew seems to be picking up significant steam across many sectors, from internet access to more modern accommodations and more "shore side" benefits. Is this the case at MSC, and if so can you illustrate some specific example of how MSC has made its vessels more appealing to potential crew?

The accommodations  and internet access has improved greatly on MSC vessels as well. Most crew members have their own room or 2 to a room. The newer ships have all new gym equipment, T's and refrigerators in the room and are more spacious than the older former USS vessels. We have upgraded our internet capability and doubled the speed on all ships.


Today's mariners deal with a number of challenges related to increased regulatory and training pressures. Where does MSC get involved in helping mariners - both logistically and financially - in the never-ending process of keeping current; medically, professionally and in terms of regulatory requirements?

MSC is probably a leader in this category. We arrange and pay for all training requirements, reimburse for credentials and provide subsistence and quarters while in training. Training is best arranged prior to or just after vacation or when a ship is in a shipyard. All logistics are coordinated with our training division. MSC provides training and we contract out to commercial facilities. MSC operates training centers on east coast, west coast for firefighting and damage control. MSC also operates UNREP training facility on the east coast and a JHSV simulator where we are certified for high speed craft endorsement.


Since the 1980s, MSC has taken on an increasing role in its sealift responsibilities, especially where civilians are taking on more roles/billets formerly filled by uniformed naval personnel. Do you see this trend increasing?

Yes, we have several ships with hybrid crew structures in which CIVMARs operates the USS vessel but uniformed Sailors perform the mission.  This has potential for growth as it is a savings to the U.S. Navy while also returning more sailors to the war fighting ships.


Is there economy of scale for the government and taxpayers in a more compact but highly versatile civilian crew?

In comparison to a large USS Navy crew, yes. We operate the ship with more experienced merchant mariners and maintain the vessel more to commercial standards. Both allow for savings.


Where and in what sectors does the typical MSC mariner/officer get additional career opportunities than a mariner serving in purely commercial service?

Continuing their career in the US government. CIVMARS are federal employees and can work for NAVSEA, MSC, MARAD etc., adding to their years of service toward retirement.


Who is the ideal MSC mariner? What would they possess in qualities that would best present a positive asset for the organization, the sealift effort and the nation, in general?

An individual with high professional and ethical standards and as you said " the mariner who wants to ship out and move up quickly".


As Deputy Director for Manpower and Afloat Personnel, part of your daily efforts are likely spent ensuring that MSC mariners have the skills and tools to properly do their jobs. Where in the scope of MSC employment do STCW requirements intersect, parallel and perhaps augment the goals of the organization?  

The STCW standards are more parallel to the goals of the organization than anything else. Some of the recent changes were training frequencies and standards we were already performing. The medical changes are closer to the higher medical standards we already had. There are some new changes such as engine room management and leadership training that we had not formalized and will now augment our goals.

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