Marine Institute alumna charts career path from sea to shore

As a high school student in Bay Bulls, Melissa Williams set her sights on a career path that took her to sea and back to shore overseeing all vessel traffic and marine operations at St. John’s harbour.

She saw the Marine Institute’s nautical science program, which prepares students for marine transportation careers, as her ticket to an unconventional job.

In 2016, Ms. Williams became manager of marine operations and harbour master at the St. John’s Port Authority – the first woman to hold the job and only the second at a Canadian port authority.

MI Alumni Award

Ms. Williams recently received the 2020 Marine Institute Alumni Award recognizing the professional accomplishments of graduates, their service to society and commitment to the MI and Memorial communities.

She says it wasn’t always easy working in an unconventional role.

“In a predominantly male industry, I found myself on the receiving end of inequity. Whether the bias was severe or subtle, I questioned the career path I had chosen in those moments. I found support in the faculty and staff at Marine Institute, and I’m very grateful to have a home base at MI where encouragement and reassurances reside,” she said.

“To be recognized by MI for my accomplishments is an honour. I’ve met some wonderful people through my affiliation with MI and I’m proud and honoured to be a member of its alumni. Once you have that sense of community at Marine Institute, it never leaves you.”

Glenn Blackwood, vice-president of Memorial University (Marine Institute), says Ms. Williams is a role model for those embarking on careers in the marine industry.

“Melissa is an exceptional Marine Institute alumna who we are proud to celebrate. She is forging an amazing path in the marine industry for young women and men to follow, opening up new areas where they can grow their careers and demonstrate substantial leadership in the port authority and the marine industry as a whole.”

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Education ladder

In 2008, Ms. Williams completed a Diploma of Technology in Nautical Science, a four-year program that requires students spend at least 360 days at sea.

“I wanted to be in a nonconventional role, I knew that this was something that interested me, that the work was there and I wouldn’t have to leave home to get a job,” she said.

The following year, she received a Bachelor in Maritime Studies in Maritime Management. She also holds a Master of Maritime Management, which she completed online in 2015.

“I did my degree online while I was working on offshore supply vessels and I did my masters while I was working at the port authority.”

Ms. Williams worked in the province’s offshore oil sector before joining the port as marine operations coordinator for logistics.

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Ever-changing environment

She enjoys the daily challenges at the port authority.

“It has exceeded my expectations,” she said. “The ever-changing environment is one of the things that I love about the job – it’s something different every day.”

Harbour masters are at the centre of marine and port operations, including vessel activity, port and marine security, traffic control, vessel berthing assignments, emergency planning and response, and enforcement of regulations.

“Everything that logistically happens with a vessel on port property all comes through us. I’m wearing a lot of hats.”

The St. John’s Port Authority serves a variety of marine sectors – container shipping, offshore oil supply and service, fishing, marine maintenance and repair, and cruise ships. In an average year, the port handles 1,500 commercial vessel arrivals and 500-600 fishing boats.

Online teaching

Last year, Ms. Williams was among the recipients of the annual Turning the Tide Marine Industry Awards.

Described as “the youngest female leader at Canada’s oldest port,” she received the inaugural Next Wave Leadership Award recognizing young professionals who display great leadership qualities and make noteworthy contributions to the marine sector.

Ms. Williams has also been trying her hand at teaching. She developed an online course in maritime security for MI’s Bachelor of Maritime Studies in Safety Management introduced two years ago.

“It’s enjoyable and rewarding. To be able to develop something and have others learn from what you developed is a really nice feeling.”

She continues to live in Bay Bulls with her husband and son.