Seatrade Maritime is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Busier than ever, but too few people aboard

Busier than ever, but too few people aboard
It used to be rather more fashionable than it is today, but every up and coming company would, from time to time, get the management consultants in to engage in what used to be called “work study”.  It was a popular strategy when cost saving was high on the agenda, when “headcount reduction” seemed indicated, to hire these experts to do the dirty work and match the actual work being done with the existing skill sets.

Work study, in its more traditional form, had a more honourable aim in that it really did try and align the available labour to the necessary tasks, considering efficiency, training and competence. While it was regarded by unions with a certain understandable suspicion, it was a very useful exercise.

While progressive organisations ashore have adopted such a scientific approach, there has been precious little evidence that work study was ever undertaken aboard ship in the ritual “de-manning” that has taken place over the past four decades. The technology has advanced tremendously in every shipping sector and shipboard work has changed accordingly, but there has been little attempt to properly examine the changing skill sets in this developing scene. The composition of a ship’s crew is recognisably that of forty years ago; only the numbers of people available to undertake the work, have been hugely reduced.

Crew reductions were deemed to be justifiable because of automation, or technical changes (although the cost of manpower was really the principal driver), but there was never any attempt to properly examine the consequences of simply getting rid of half the seafarers aboard any ship. No study was ever undertaken into whether it was justifiable to reduce the number of hands available for maintenance, or the safety or operational implications.

There was never any proper thought about whether junior engineers could be deleted from the watch bill, along with the junior third mate, this requiring the chief officer to keep the 4-8 watch. It was just done, in most cases in a peremptory letter from head office informing the master or chief engineer of the changes. There was a curt assumption that these roles were no longer to be filled and the work presently undertaken by these individuals must be done by the remaining crew members.

The classic examples of unthinking job deletions were the disappearance of the radio officer and the purser, one deemed surplus to requirements after GMDSS appeared, the other a simple “back of the envelope” cost saving. Together, they represented a very useful saving, undertaken without the slightest compunction by progressive number crunchers. Nobody appeared to consider the secondary role of the RO as the only person aboard ship who could intervene when the growing quantity of electronics went wrong. He also very often had a further role as the Captain’s confidential secretary.

The purser, who had a major task in sorting out the paperwork for port calls, besides running the catering department, was a major cog in a smooth running shipboard wheel, but this did not save him, most of the work being dumped on the master, who was left to cope with the paperwork explosion of the past ten years, alone.

It has probably, despite fanciful ideas about unmanned ships, all gone too far. Writing in the Nautical Institute’s Seaways, chief officer Robert Parker has calculated that as a busy LNG carrier mate, he actually does fifteen other people’s jobs. And there is the Maritime Labour Convention, and closer supervision of rest hours to cope with, and a spotlight on fatigue-related accidents. A bit of traditional work study at sea could be overdue.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.