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‘It is the people that matter’: Columbia Shipmanagement

Shipping is “woefully behind” other industries in the area of HR (human resources) and that needs to change, according to Mark O’Neil, president of Columbia Shipmanagement (CSM).

Speaking at a seminar discussing ‘The ship manager of the future’, organised during London International Shipping Week, O’Neil stressed the importance of people, training and lifelong learning, and of making the industry attractive for those considering their careers.

“Technology and digitalisation are merely tools to enhance – not replace – human performance,” he said. “It is the people that matter at the end of the day. Whatever service any of us have, what makes the difference is the personal touch and interaction with the people you are receiving the service from. You are not persuaded by technology but by the people behind it. But there is a real dearth of talented people coming into the industry.”

Most shipping companies have HR people “pushing paper”, he said. “But they are not really engaged in career progression for individuals in the way that other industries are and not managing their careers to ensure that they stay in the industry.”

Training is going to be very different in future with much more emphasis on adaptive, intuitive, proactive based learning and not learning by rote, said  O’Neil. “And as managers we need to bring training to the recruitment centres.”

CSM is about to set up a new training centre in the Philippines, and this should be operational in a year’s time, he said, while also highlighting the importance of tailored e-learning for crew.

The Limassol-based ship manager is also focusing on healthy eating for its crew, working in partnership with MCTC, and on exercise and mental health.

CSM says it is the first ship manager to establish a dedicated 24/7 mental health hotline for its employees, with two psychologists available to talk to any crew who need assistance, said O’Neil.

“Mental health is a huge issue, not only on the personal side – of course we want to avoid suicides and breakdowns – but also on the commercial side, because if someone goes missing or locks themselves into the store room, there can be a huge amount of consequential losses.”

The focus must be on people and on enhancing human performance, not replacing it, he said. “We still need humans. You will probably have more people doing the job in future but doing it better [enabled by digitalisation].”