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Seafaring – not just by numbers

Seafaring – not just by numbers
It is not exactly rocket science that if you are sailing on a happy ship, with your wages paid promptly and in full, working for a company that backs up its value of you with decent promotion prospects, your views of your life at sea are likely to be broadly positive. But these “shop floor” opinions probably need to be spelt our more clearly in our sceptical age.

These are just some of the preliminary results of a new seafarer survey, which has been designed to put some flesh on the raw statistics which we are more used to in the five yearly manpower report from Bimco and the International Chamber of Shipping. Rather than inquire of the flag states, owners and “people of influence” as to the state of maritime manpower supply and demand, it has been determined that some good ideas might be gleaned from the manpower itself.

It is an excellent idea, and seafarers have responded in some numbers to the survey, which asked them what made them stay with their current employers, how long it might take them to find another berth if they changed to another company and what they counted as improvements in their conditions at sea over the past couple of years. To date, some 500 seafarers from 40 nationalities have come back with their answers which have in many respects underlined what any sensible person might have thought.

There is the tendency for landside folk to think of seafarers as a bit exotic, but the reality is that they are just like anyone else, responding positively to decent treatment and moving on when they think that there is something better on offer. With the answers to the survey, one perhaps need to read between the lines, determining from the more diplomatic responses the strong belief that clever and responsible professionals don’t like being treated as infantile by regulators and others who behave increasingly like control freaks, stifling initiative with their endless and pettifogging rules. People ashore don’t appreciate being patronised or regarded as idiots, do they?

The seafarers’ belief that it would take them less than three months to find another job if they chose to leave their current employer indicates that the industry is probably in recovery mode, with plenty of ships around offering jobs. Later surveys will explore the demographics and the views of the manning agencies, which tend to be the best informed as to the overall picture.

Technology would tend to be narrowing the gap between the seafarer and their loved ones at home, with some appreciation of internet access. As for basic pay and conditions, nobody, in any generation, will have willingly gone to sea for a “package” that was less than that available in their own home country ashore. You can take the cynical approach that only those who have to, go to sea, but alternatively you can appeal to those differences between sea and landside employment. “Life at sea is exciting, challenging and very educational”, said one respondent, “The skills that anyone can receive from this job cannot be compared to anything else ashore”.

The grass is always greener, but there is a lot to be said for the “University of the Sea” as a preparation for the rest of life. It will be some time before the final manpower report is made public, but this flavour of seafarer perception about their chosen job will clearly enrich the conclusions, whether these suggest that we have shortages or surpluses of the people without whom ships could not possibly operate. We should remember, above all else, that happy ships matter more than grim managerial diktats about “sweating assets” and cost cutting, even at a time when a capesize is earning about one quarter of it needs.