There is a growing concern about the depletion of the maritime skills base, and it is going global. In Europe, Sir Robert Coleman is heading a committee of inquiry into what must be done to persuade more Europeans to choose a sea career, with reports of shortages appearing from around the Community. Ideas, policies, proposals – all are being welcomed as there is a growing realisation that Europe is running out of home-grown talent.
Curiously, it is the shortage of people with the right “sea-skills” in shore side jobs that is causing even more concern than the lack of trained seafarers, and this too, is becoming universal. In Australia, for instance, there is a desperate concern at the shortage of candidates for port and Barrier Reef pilotage, just at a time when expansion of the latter and demand for the former is an issue. From Singapore to Glasgow there is a shortage of ship managers, superintendents and surveyors. Classification societies, which used to recruit their surveyors mainly from sea and shipyard trained officers, are now recruiting straight from university and attempting to “telescope” the years of shipboard experience through intensive training. “We are all fishing from the same pool” the chairman of an Asian society complained recently.
And much of these shortages in the infrastructure can be traced back to the difficulty of attracting talent to the sea career. People are reluctant to join where there are other alternatives. There is a problem of retention, and a growing realisation that the sea life which was sufficient to attract and retain young people to the sea a generation ago is not sufficiently attractive today.
Ironically, the pay and conditions of seafarers today has arguably never been more attractive, but the “lifestyle” still fails to attract the quality people the industry badly needs. Seafaring and ship operation perhaps need something of a “makeover” if they are not to remain in a state of manpower crisis, with the BIMCO-ISF manpower survey now under way unlikely to produce much in the way of good news.
Already, there are a reasonable number of hints about what perhaps needs to be looked at. There is real and growing concern about the issue of criminalisation of people in responsible positions afloat and ashore in the event of accidents, incidents and ship-shore misunderstandings. There is a palpable impatience with the disrespect shown to seafarers by shoreside officials, who need to be told to modify their often authoritative (stronger words are usually employed!) attitude, when they board ships in port.
There is discontent about the casual nature of too much shipboard employment, which is increasingly failing to match up to the aspirations of the modern seafarer, and the social life aboard ship. Multi-lingual and multicultural crewing is increasingly viewed with disfavour.
The endless and increasing bureaucracy, excessive regulation and burdensome oversight are often mentioned by disenchanted officers who came to sea to undertake tasks other than filling in forms demanded by officialdom everywhere. The lack of shore leave opportunities and the burdens of security, which seem to bear down on ships far more than ports, are also a negative factor.
It is these issues, which aggregated, turn contented seafarers into those wishing to leave the industry. And it is these matters that need to be addressed in the short term if a new generation of seafarers and a competent shore side infrastructure is to take over the many jobs which rely on sea experience. There may be no easy answers, but it is time that we stopped asking the same questions!