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Severe shortage of hands on deck in Vietnam

Hanoi: As the country's export numbers climb, its ships are bulging with products to send abroad. The problem is that while the domestic ocean vessel fleet has been developing rapidly, there are not enough seamen to man the ships, local media report.

"By August 31, the country had about 1,194 ocean vessels with total tonnage estimated at more than 4 million tonnes," said Nguyen Vu Hai, head of the Vietnam Registration Department's Ocean Shipping Division. "This has resulted in a serious shortage of mariners for ocean ships, particularly those running international routes."

With the exception of major companies such as Vietnam Ocean Shipping Company (VOSCO), Vietnam National Shipping Lines (Vinalines) and Vietnam Shipping Company (Vinaship), marine transport companies have had to go to great lengths to ensure a sufficient supply of seamen for their fleets, he said.

The maritime industry finds it especially difficult to recruit workers because sailors have to have specific qualifications, Hai said.

They must have very good health, high discipline and the ability to endure hard living conditions. They are required to have professional skills and good proficiency in foreign languages.

They also have to be familiar with various legal systems, domestic and foreign.

To ensure such qualifications, the training period for a mariner is long: three years to become a skilled sailor, seven years an executive officer, 10 years a managing officer and between 12 and 14 years for a captain, he said.

A CEO of a marine transport company relates the difficulty of putting together a crew. "We had seven vessels, and were hard pressed to recruit men," he said. "In the end, we could find only five captains, three boatswains and three engine room heads."

"Hiring sailors is a hard job because most job centres that lease seamen prefer to work with foreign companies to make bigger profits," said Do Khac That, director of the Seamen Labour Export Company.

"Recruiting mariners with enough qualifications is difficult, but keeping them for a long time is much more difficult," That said."Most skilled sailors want to work for companies that can offer them good working conditions and high salaries. Some mariners give up their jobs when they find another one that is safer and pays more."

Hai admitted that the average Vietnamese mariner's income is equivalent to only one-sixth of that of an average Japanese sailor's, or three-fifth of one from the Philippines.

The shortfall in new mariners to meet demand by domestic maritime transport companies has put a huge dent in the business of domestic seamen labour export as well.

Vinalines reported that its labour export business has not seen smooth sailing in recent years.

In 2004, the corporation sent 1,089 seamen to work abroad, earning nearly US$8.13 million. But the number of mariners to be sent this year is estimated to be only 60 per cent of that figure.

Corporation officials attributed the decrease to an insufficient supply of qualified mariners for the export market.

Vietnam only has two establishments involved in training university-level mariners, the Vietnam Maritime University and the Southern Transport and Communications University, in addition to some colleges and vocational training schools.

These schools train 1,500 seamen each year. That is not enough to meet the domestic market's demand.

Le Ngoc Trinh, director of the Maritime College No.1, said most mariner training facilities are in poor conditions and have outdated teaching aids. That means students cannot acquire the necessary skills training.

The maritime industry does not have uniform training standards, so each establishment has its own standards, said Duong Dinh Huynh, head of the Vietnam Maritime Administration's Personnel Office. The result is that mariners come with different skill levels.

The Ministry of Transport plans to issue common criteria, requiring all domestic seamen training establishments to adhere to them to ensure standard training quality, according to Deputy Minister Tran Doan Tho.  [17/10/07]

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