Michael Grey | LLOYD’S LIST
WHY won’t Europeans go to sea, or if they do, why don’t they stay at sea longer?
These questions have been asked, it seems, for decades as the stock of European mariners is depleted by age and infirmity, and few replacements come forward. The European Commission has been agonising about this dearth of seafarers for years, producing videos on attractive seafaring careers, conducting surveys among member nations to drum up good marketing ideas for seafarers and holding the odd conference on the subject.
But there is no surge of interest among young people, who can think of umpteen other careers (including sitting on the dole) as alternatives to signing on a ship.
A new initiative sees the energetic Sir Robert Coleman presiding over an inquiry into the problem, and with a committee of well-qualified folk, trying to identify the inhibitors to a marine career. I could be mistaken, but I think there are no current seafarers among those offering their time and efforts, and that might be a pity, because in this writer’s humble view it is their assessment of modern seafaring which will provide the keys to the commission’s conundrum. So let us offer some suggestions, just to assist the project and help it to get off on the right foot.
Firstly, it would greatly assist the employment of European seafarers if European marine employers would give a little more encouragement. Sometimes you think they would rather eat ground glass sandwiches than suggest they would actually like to employ Europeans.
“They do not want to go to sea,” is the usual litany intoned by shipowners, who really mean cheap seafarers are far more appreciated than European seafarers, or Europeans will not tolerate seafaring with the wages and conditions they have on offer, both of which are nearer the truth.
Secondly, marine employers have an unfortunate reputation for finding some economic reason to sack European employees and replace them with cheaper alternatives. They did it en masse in the 1980s and wrecked their reputation for a generation. They are doing it again now, perhaps not to such a scale, but sufficiently to inhibit a career-minded person from seeking a sea career with even what we think of as blue chip companies.
It is time they woke up and smelt the coffee, and realised casual labour is inappropriate in the 21st century shipping industry. They also need to stop thinking (if not speaking) of their crews as a commodity. These are sentient human beings, and it does not help recruitment that seafarers are regarded as if they were brands of anti-fouling, or lube oil. Shipowners also need reminding that seafarers have given them quite astonishing productivity advances over the past three decades, and the pips are beginning to squeak.
It would also assist if they realised a young person’s impression of a sea career is probably not helped if he or she finds themselves aboard a ship in which nobody speaks their language. Let us not beat around the bush about this — there is a social dimension here and the size of the average crew and polyglot crewing is a serious inhibitor.
It may be the wrong week to speak of such things, but would you like to work in a place for months on end, where you could not even discuss the football results?
Sir Robert will quickly realise there is a real problem with the employment of European junior officers, who find it enormously difficult to find permanent work when they have completed their cadetships, and proudly bearing their new certificates find the junior officers’ posts have been filled by cheap non-Europeans. Shipowners, whose idea of long term staffing policies revolve around finding a second engineer to join a ship in Singapore next Tuesday, seem to have failed to grasp this difficulty, and the need for a proper career progression to senior ranks.
Then there are all the other problem areas, none of which are exactly new but are always worth repeating. The criminalisation of seafarers after maritime incidents is often spoken about, but is a genuine inhibitor to anyone wishing to be a senior officer. Why would anyone aspire to the same, when they see some fat bully in port barking at the master of their ship, or the way seafarers are often treated by shore side people.
Give seafarers an upgrade in their social status, treat them like the skilled professionals they are, and there could be rather more people interested in what can be an interesting and rewarding career that is essential to civilised society. Shipowners could help by backing their employees against these swine and behaving in a more robust fashion with the authorities, who need their feet held in the fire more often.
Lastly, this investigation, if it is to be more successful than previous attempts to increase the base of professional European seafarers, must grapple with the issue of competitiveness, which employers use like a bludgeon to defend the status quo. If we really want to avoid the complete disappearance of the European seafarer we have to do something about the loopholes owners exploit by running up some funny flag, while continuing to operate in wholly intra-European trades with a crew of sheep herders.
I would not suggest cloning the Jones Act, but shipowners ought to realise if they do not at least recognise the problems, there is a risk some Euro parliamentarian will recommend just that.
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