Times have changed since it was the maladjusted youth or economically challenged profiles who were the foundation of the crewing for ships. These days it is a profession of choice and officers are educated to bachelor level. But has the industry managed to develop in parallel to integrate these profiles and how is the prospect of the future?
Only 50 years ago the shipping business was extremely different from now. Being a sailor was a life style, it was not rare to spend 12 month at sea and a high number of sailors never made it home to Denmark between ships, but stayed in maritime hubs like Singapore, Manila or Bangkok. Ships stayed long time in ports – sometimes weeks. There was plenty crew onboard and no alcohol restriction or AIDS. Sailors was adventurous people who in the marine business could wipe the screen clean and start a new life. Never mind that you did not have an education, that you came out from prison, that you were not able to read, as long as you were able (hence the term AB Able-Bodied), willing to work hard and could fit in onboard socially you were welcome in the business. Youngsters tired of school were happy to find a different environment where they could be challenged, earn good money and come home as men. Myths were created at that time. Sailors were rough people with tattoos, parrots on the shoulder and golden ear rings.
All this has changed. In the maritime business you now need a high school degree to enter the officer educations. Becoming a junior navigating officer takes at least 4 years and there is no room for maladjusted people. The amount of administration is now so demanding that you need extensive bookkeeping skills. The ships are so advanced that you need extensive training to operate the equipment. Most ships spend few hours in port with no time for the sailors to go ashore. The crew onboard has been reduced to the absolute minimum. On top of this, different nationalities have been implemented in the crewing policy with the target of reducing manning cost. Crew from third world countries does not complain about the conditions. If you can choose between poverty, hunger or going to sea – the latter is clearly the best. But the western youngsters are not happy with the conditions. They have other choices. Few people who have spent their life on sea will recommend this path to their kids. Extensive marketing have been implemented in Denmark to attract new profiles to the blue business. The campaign has been relatively successful and every year a new batch of fresh baked officers is leaving the Engineer or Navigating Officer Schools.
So what reality waits for these hopeful young people? What made them make the choice to enter the business? And for how long will they stay? And what will they do after the sailing career? These are good questions that are not easily answered. First of all, lots of trouble waits onboard the ships. That is for sure, studying various reports and maritime blogs. Items that score high rank in the mind of sailors these days are: Piracy, criminalization, loneliness, deprivation, disturbed sleep pattern, no influence on food and difficult access to doctors. The other side of the coin is the high pay, the independence, the big responsibility, the travels and the personal development being on your own out in the big world. In Denmark, the average time a navigation officer continues to sail after end education is 7 years according to a survey conducted by Danish Maritime Officers. Then they start to work ashore in a marine related company or do something completely different. A few percent last longer and if you are sailing when you are 50 the chances that you will go ashore is quite small. Obviously it may be a bit difficult for such a profile to adjust to a land job after many years at sea. If there was ample supply of officers and senior profiles for the offices, we did not need to change anything, from an economical perspective at least. But talking to the various ship owners in Denmark we start to see a bottle neck arising. We do not have enough HSQE profiles, we do not have enough DP operators and we lack naval architects and many other important positions. That is the fuel under the discussion, what do we do about now and what do we do in a longer perspective?
Denmark has been a leader in the maritime business in many years. Most people in the business know that we contribute in a substantial way to the welfare society of Denmark. 85.000 people are directly employed in the business and 10,5 of the total production value stems from the maritime business. Of this 85% is export – which is highly needed to keep our balance of payments positive. In the last years 15 ship yards has closed in Denmark and the newbuilding business has almost completely been overtaken by Asian countries. Over the last 6 years Europe’s part of the newbuilding business has been reduced from 18,8% to 9,1% – a staggering reduction of more than 50%. Onboard the Danish ships the share of Danish officers has been reduced from 86% to 70% over the last 9 years and at the same time the share of foreign officers has increased from 14% to 30%. It looks even worse when we study the figures for ratings, in the same 9 years the figure for Danish ratings has dropped from 54% to 35% and the share of foreigners has increased from 46% to 65%. 30% of the entire world fleet is manned by ratings from Philippines. Before it all get too negative, it is important to highlight that over the last 7 years the Danish fleet has increased with more than 100% from 15.994 Mill. DWT to 32.157 Mill. DWT. Danish ship owners are doing well right now, no doubt about this. They were not so hard affected by the crisis because the fundament was in order. More than hundred years of experience showed the difference in the financial crisis and we have seen very few owners in trouble in Denmark. But with above figures in mind, what is the prospect for the future?
In the past, the average sailing time for the sailors employed onboard the offices was high. It was not uncommon with 10-30 years of sailing time in the book before you became superintendent, HSQ manager or even fleet manager. That is not the case now. Young people wants to get ashore again after few years at sea. Probably due to a mix of the above mentioned parameters. The ship owners cannot pick and choose who they want for the shore based positions. Actually for years, they have got new people to shore based positions by attracting profiles, with higher salary and better conditions, from competing ship-owners. Most ship-owners still have senior profiles in the corner. The young people cannot do without them. When the McGregor hatches is jamming, when they have oil spill, port state control etc. the grey gold have seen it all and knows how to deal with it. There is an increasing concern about what will happen when these senior profiles are not in the office anymore. They are the true value of the company, the heart blood so to speak. And they have practical experience from sea, they understand the terms and conditions onboard a ship. If we want to maintain the maritime business in Denmark in some form we have to look into this single subject. It is not enough to educate more people. Utilizing crew from third world countries is not the answer – they tend to retire early and move back home – which is quite understandable since they spent a significant part of their life onboard the ships in long duty periods.
This issue is not only discussed in Denmark. This is a North European issue. This is something that affects the entire western world. The maritime business is the most global business on earth. It is an extremely competitive business and crewing and ship building takes place where the salary is lowest. The western world has invented modern shipping. Starting with the proud empire time of United Kingdom and followed up by endless innovations and patents. Europe and the States were leading the way for many years. But the salaries turned out to be not competitive anymore. You could get arms and legs in Asia much cheaper. Brazil had a role in the seventies soon to be taken over by Japan. Later Korea was wearing the yellow t-shirt and they are now seriously challenged by China. Ship building is labor intensive work. In the industrialized world we probably have to come to terms with the fact that yards probably never will come back.
In the beginning, when ships were built in new places, knowledge was exported as skilled profiles, design, machines and inventory. We were basically contracting arms and legs and there was still plenty of work for us. Later it turned out that it was only a window. The shipyards developed and the level of quality was increasing. The local education system was redesigned to accommodate the maritime business and ship building became a big part of the countrys economy and identity. In exactly the same way as it used to be for us in the western world. Summarizing up, it is clear that something is going on, that the business is moving away from the western world. What should we do about it? Or even more relevant, can we do anything about it? To quote one of the more famous profiles in the world right now – Yes we can.
It will require a never seen before cooperation between all parties in the business. It will require a change of perspective and a total reform of the education system. At the moment seen from the individuals’ perspective things are maybe not so bad. Until they lose the job because the office is closed down or because the ship owner decides to change nationality.
Normally, there are a lot of emotions in this debate. Lets make one thing clear. Ship owners are not evil people that enjoy changing nationality onboard the ships or changing to foreign flag. Ship owners are highly professional companies that try to run business in an extremely competitive environment. It is often highlighted that they make big money – yes, sometimes they do, but when they dont they also have high loss. Shipping is a risky business. Another point is that most big ship owners in Denmark are owned by share holders and by paying tax it is somehow in the entire Danish societys interest that they do well financially.
It is important that this debate is without pointed fingers and referrals to the past. It is time to sit together with representatives from the entire maritime cluster. Participants could be, but not limited to: Unions, ship owners, shipping people, suppliers, schools, authorities, insurance companies, classification societies, crew and technical office staff.
Here are some ideas:
- Full career paths to all the different positions you can have ashore
- Turns in the office always included for ships crew and office staff to visit ships and harbour facilities
- HR & crewing operated in the same unit with same benefits and conditions
- Free broadband internet onboard
- A range of relevant educations that the sailor can take while sailing
- Enough people onboard so an officer can take a full day off every second week
- Psychological working environment
- Investments in harbour facilities – close to the ships, with social hubs for sailors, pick up and shopping service, sports facilities
- Focus on delicious and healthy food
- As many decisions as possible to be done by ships crew
- Employ one person to do only administrative work onboard
- Gymnasium onboard must be mandatory
- Maximum time at sea 10 weeks
Full career paths to all the different positions you can have ashore
As it is now, you are educated to do service onboard ships. What happens after your sailing career is not a part of your education on the navigation- or engineering school. All roles in the maritime cluster must be evaluated and appropriate background and education must be clear. If we take for example a superintendent, a ship owner can in theory employ anybody to do the job. They normally prefer an engineer for a technical superintendent role and a navigation officer for a nautical superintendent role. The website worldcareers.dk has done a big job to create a career compass but it is all based on inputs. The business needs a complete map and minimum requirements for getting the various roles. When you go ashore you have to adapt to a completely different working environment and the only way you can be better at the job is to learn from the senior profiles as it is now. For the example with the superintendent, it could prove beneficial that there was a three month course – or maybe a distance learning course so you become certified superintendent. In this way you can during your sailing career specialize into the area that you want to work in after your sailing career. Standardization and optimizing of the educational background including sailing time will be a benefit for the entire cluster.
Turns in the office always included for ships crew and office staff to visit ships and harbor facilities
Sometimes there are light years between life on board and life in the office. Both parties have a hard time to understand the reality of the challenges of the other part. To close this gap and ensure full co-operation and understanding between the parties some exchange is crucial.
HR & crewing operated in the same unit with same benefits and conditions
There is a very good example of a ship owner looking for a Chief Engineer for a bulk ship. The job advertisement contains three lines: Ships name, flag and salary. The same company is also looking for a superintendent for bulk. This advertisement is three A4 pages. They are looking for a profile with same educational background. The first are contracted by the crewing department, very often outsourced to a crewing company and the latter is contracted by the HR department. It is important that we consider crew onboard ships as humans – to be administered by Human Relations – not commodities administered by a crewing department – normally controlled by the technical department.
Free broadband internet onboard
Young people these days are normally online almost 24/7. Bringing them into an environment where they cannot communicate on social platforms, get news, watch movies, send emails etc. will just not be accepted by them. Broadband internet is an extremely important part of the package that should attract young people to a career in the maritime business.
A range of relevant educations that the sailor can take while sailing
Even though many officers – especially in coastal trade – are very busy onboard there must be a range of relevant educations that can help a seagoing profile to optimize his opportunities if he wants to go ashore. Example of courses could be, but not limited to: Surveyor, Superintendent, HSQE, Sales, Shipping, Law or insurance. These courses must be tailor-made for the business and officially certified so we are sure that we keep the knowledge in the maritime loop.
Enough people onboard so an officer can take a full day of every second week
This is a controversial suggestion. But nevertheless it makes sense. How many people on shore are working between 8-12 hours minimum every day in 90 days? If possible, the free day should be spent when the ship is on shore. The day is for recharging the batteries, catch up on sleep, relax or maybe get some new input from different cultures. It could also be to do home work, to have quality time on webcam with family or friends.
Psychological working environment
Life onboard ships are tough. The opinion of some senior profiles is that they are not there to make anybody happy. Most people miss family and friends and communication can easily become tough. If the ship is leaking oil some ship-owners have implemented whistle blower options. The same can be done about the psychological working environment. There is an old joke saying that the sea is the catchment area for the mentally maladjusted people that would not be able to work in land based organizations. The business has now got rid of the socially maladjusted, the alcoholics and now it is time to look at the mental health of people onboard. In many cases, ship owners have implemented that when signing off, the captain rates the officer signing off and report home. It should go the other way too, and action should be taken if the reports indicate that a captain is not able to create a healthy and inspiring working environment. It could prove beneficial to make a personality test before accepting people into the officer system.
Investments in harbour facilities – close to the ships, with social hubs for sailors, pick up and shopping service, sports facilities
In few rare cases ship owners have donated money to the seamans church. Why is it the church of all institutions that are responsible for the social life of sailors going ashore? Is it acceptable that we hand over welfare of our crew to charity institutions? It has been like this for generations and it is understandable that ship owners operating in tramp cannot invest in facilities in ports. As a start, ship owners operating liner service could create these hubs. It could be that ports should be involved in this discussion – so a small percentage of the port fee is allocated for building state of the art facilities.
Focus on delicious and healthy food
This does not need to be explained further. Everybody in the business understands this; the problem is that the rules for food onboard ships can be interpreted in various ways and that the competitive situation has forced ship owners to cut down on the budget for food too. Food is one of the most important parameters
As many decisions as possible to be done by ships crew
The officer of 2011 is a responsible and intelligent profile. He/she needs to be involved in decisions and feel responsibility in order to gain job satisfaction. The easy communication to the ships is good in many ways, but the down side is that many officers feel like being remote controlled by the office. It is crucial that ship owners let officers do decisions and take responsibility.
Employ one person to do only administrative work onboard
Only few years ago there was a radio officer onboard all ships. When modern IT was implemented on the ships including GMDSS the need for a dedicated radio officer was eliminated. But the radio officer had many other duties. He/she was in addition to the communication work a substantial administrative resource for the captain and the chief engineer. The amount of paper work has increased in a dramatic way and the crew has been cut down to a minimum. This is a major stressor for the crew. We want the captains to concentrate on being good leaders, ensure safe sailing and to be a visible profile onboard. Not being drowned in paper work. The profile could be a normal office clerk with a short tailor-made education – or alternatively it could be a navigation officer – the benefit in that would be that he could assist in duty, when officers need time off. An even more efficient way could be to employ minimum one dual officer on board every ship. This profile would be able to assist both the navigating officers and the engine crew when needed and could furthermore take watch duties to ensure days off as mentioned above.
Gymnasium onboard must be mandatory
Gym onboard should be mandatory and instead of the interpretation of the existing blue book where sailors can continue sailing with hundreds of kg overweight, it could be considered to implement similar conditions like in the navy, where you have to pass a test on a biannual basis. The crew is responsible for safety onboard the ship. If you have a serious casualty like fire or collision it is important that all crew is fit and can take care of themselves.
Maximum time at sea is 10 weeks
Depending on trade the maximum duty period should be from 2-10 weeks. Naturally individuals can apply for longer periods but for the young people entering the business by today, 10 weeks are very long time.
The above mentioned ideas are not to be implemented over night. Furthermore, there is a competition problem if other nations refuse to follow the rules. As it is now, we have only one body to implement rules in the maritime business. That is IMO – and IMO have no legal power. IMO can suggest a resolution but it will only go into force when a sufficient number of nations have signed the resolution. It is an extremely slow and inefficient way of implementing rules but it is the only way as it is now. First the blue business in Denmark needs to agree on national level how we should plan for the future. When we have reached consensus about the message to be forwarded, we should try to get support from the most important seafaring nations, like Germany, Holland, Norway and Greece. Based on this paper we could start to work on creating a syndicate, globally strong and influential to make legal changes. The syndicate should represent al interests in the maritime cluster from all maritime nations and could be organized under the IMO umbrella. We have a common playground when we talk certificates for officers, it should be possible to implement certificates and authorizations for all the shore based positions in the maritime cluster. We need to present a secured plank to walk ashore when the officers are ready. The resistance from the business to make the plank easy to walk has probably been due to the fact that they are afraid that nobody will stay onboard the ships. When e.g. a navigating officer has passed the first couple of years a significant amount of hours have been invested in training and then it is actually not attractive for the ship owner that he walks ashore. But even less attractive is it if he chooses to change profession completely due to demand from his family or due to lack of job satisfaction. By certifying all the various roles in the office the business are furthermore implementing an incentive to stay onboard. If a minimum sailing time at sea for becoming a superintendent is e.g. 3 years as senior, you would think twice before jumping ashore too soon. A lot of senior profiles in the business have called for action – now it is time to get the hands up from the pockets and begin the work. The alternative is not attractive. We need to see each step forward as a success for our strategy and not let us be discouraged by the enormous challenge.