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Adopting digital training to future-proof shipping operations

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The use of digital methods of learning is becoming increasingly important to train and upskill our maritime workforce to meet the rapidly changing needs of the industry, writes Capt. Pradeep Chawla, CEO and Founder, MarinePALS.

The maritime industry workforce is at the coal face of significant transformation, driven by decarbonisation, and digitalisation, making it critical that training is fit for purpose to meet evolving workforce dynamics. The industry must embrace digital learning methods to effectively and quickly train and upskill new and experienced seafaring and shore-based professionals in ways that suit the changing learning needs of the maritime workforce.

The recently launched report of the Tripartite Advisory Panel (TAP) for Future-Ready Maritime Workforce has provided a timely look at the key training needs of maritime and serves as a vital roadmap, outlining the essential strategies needed to prepare, equip and sustain the maritime workforce rapidly. While the TAP report primarily focuses on the Singapore landscape, many of its findings can be applied across other geographical locations, benefiting our entire industry.

Training will need to be a key consideration for all changes maritime faces; one of the TAP report’s three core strategies is to improve the way we enable the maritime workforce to deepen and broaden their skills. It examines domain, digital, and soft skills with enduring and emerging skills in maritime, and discusses ways to develop these skills in training. 

We must keep in mind that the demographics and behaviours of the workforce are shifting from Baby Boomers to Gen Zs, and their aspirations and priorities are different. A massive shift is occurring in how people want to learn, with a greater preference for digital learning methods, while interest in attending classes is dwindling. In today’s fast-paced world, people prefer to grasp information and knowledge in the shortest amount of time through bite-sized content. Short video content between one and seven minutes (micro-learning) and gamification of training are useful and effective ways to deliver content that engages and motivates staff while helping with knowledge retention and grasping of concepts, from the basic to more complex. 

With the COVID pandemic, digital maritime training has become increasingly normalised, and there is a need for e-learning to be underpinned by a deep understanding of the maritime sector and its needs; the right content must be paired with the right technology. If not, useful technological solutions such as Augmented Reality or Virtual Reality will be simply a flashy gimmick that doesn’t fulfil the training and upskilling needs of sea-going and shore-based professionals. 

Digitalising learning

Digital learning can transform the workforce, but success requires collaboration between industry leaders, educators and digital training providers. While it should not replace traditional methods entirely, digital learning can effectively complement and enhance classroom training. 

Real-life maritime environments can be entirely new for sea-going or shore-based professionals who have previously only received academic, theoretical instruction. Graduates and entry-level professionals, in particular, can struggle to apply their knowledge when onboard a ship or in a maritime environment. We believe that immersive experiences and real-time training via Virtual Reality (VR) - programmed with the right content -  can help bridge the gap between theory and practical application of learning. For example, giving cadets the chance to virtually walk around a realistic Forepeak tank will help them acclimatise to the real thing a lot faster than just being told about it or seeing pictures. This is what we do at MarinePALS; our VR programmes are designed to provide immersive, ultra-realistic experiences and real-time training, allowing learners to visualise the environments they would be working in and how to respond to various scenarios both at sea and onshore.

Our experience as training providers, and insights from many studies, show that people prefer ‘micro-learning’ or byte-sized learning, regardless of their experience. This approach breaks down content into small blocks of easily absorbable information. As the TAP report identifies, training providers should develop stackable skills and micro-credential models for pre-employment training and continuous learning programmes.

With over 30 years of experience in the industry and having worked with over 30,000 seafarers of all ages, I have observed that people absorb information best when learning content is presented in video format, for both young and senior seafarers. For many, especially Millennials and Gen Zs raised with computer games, gamification can make learning interactive and enjoyable, while instilling specific skills needed for their respective roles. It keeps users engaged with content and motivated to keep trying until they achieve a high score or see their name on the leaderboard amongst their fellow crew. 

Our formats of short videos and gamification are being appreciated by seafarers, who prefer it to the traditional eLearning that focuses more on memory recall and assessments, which made the training boring and a chore, while MarinePALS formats are all about ‘wanting to learn’ and having fun while learning.

These digital learning methods are not only applicable to new entrants but also to those transitioning from sea-going roles to shore-based roles and vice versa, as well as those seeking career conversions into maritime. However, formats such as books and classroom learning must also be available to ensure that all learners' needs are accommodated.

Recognising industry needs

Maritime training must evolve rapidly if it is to ensure its workforce has the skill sets to handle major changes on the horizon, from increasing digitalisation and automation on board, to what is arguably the most pressing - to urgently prepare our workforce to safely operate new, energy-efficient technologies, such as alternative fuels and novel propulsion systems. 

The TAP report, and the revisions of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), reflect the urgent need for maritime training to address modern challenges. Changes in policy and regulations can take time, but training and upskilling of new entrants and the current maritime workforce are needed today. Digital training can bridge that gap and play a crucial role in equipping professionals with the necessary knowledge and skills for new and emerging challenges. Imagine providing VR training on how to safely bunker a new fuel, and the safety scenarios they could encounter, before it is adopted across your fleet - already giving crews the kinds of real-world issues they might encounter and allowing them to apply knowledge and training in realistic, pressurised scenarios. 

All kinds of digital training can be rolled out across the fleet with ease, without the logistical and costly need to send staff to training centres or build life-size vessel models for training. Importantly, digital training content can be developed reactively and tailored to the needs of companies and different ranks and roles within the organisation. It is particularly well suited to get across complex information in accessible ways with the use of video, gamification and immersive tools like VR.

Digital training can be harnessed effectively as part of a company’s approach to instilling the right skills in their staff, particularly as we need to swiftly adapt to change and ways in which people learn and absorb information in today’s modern world. By working together, we can design and deliver comprehensive training programmes that meet the specific needs of the maritime industry, so that we ensure training is fit for purpose and our maritime workforce can safely and competently face the challenges that lie ahead.