The pace of maritime digitalisation, with spending on digital tools in the sector estimated to more than double to over $300 billion by 2030, can be unsettling for those on the industry’s frontlines.1
Technological change is often accompanied by cultural shifts, as new working practices beget new organisational structures and values. As tech companies occupy a more prominent position in the global business environment, it becomes common for companies from all industries to speak in a language previously only heard in tech startups; prizing agility and innovation through “moving fast and breaking things.” It may be obvious why that mantra isn’t the key to career advancement for my friend operating LNG tankers, but is there something valuable that even a necessarily careful and asset-heavy industry like shipping can learn from the tech industry? Perhaps we may also be surprised that in a time of cultural exchange between these industries, tech finds a thing or two to learn from shipping.
Talent acquisition and talent development
One area in which shipping can learn from the tech world revolves around talent acquisition and development. The shipping industry's traditional career path is often linear and siloed, starting with apprenticeships or a select number of specific university programs and then specialisation in particular functions, e.g. chartering, within a single company, before moving to a competitor, which often involves the payment of chunky headhunter fees. Seafarer recruitment is a known challenge, but some companies I have spoken to also mentioned difficulties in finding new apprentices for shore careers, with applicant-to-vacancy ratios declining in one case from 12:1 to 2:1. Clearly, there is a need to appeal more vigorously to a new generation, but also to look for ways to swell the talent pool via other channels. One of the notable facets of tech startup ecosystems is the numerous options for sideways entry into the industry, with programs like coding bootcamps and UX-Design intensive courses that allow mid-career professionals from various backgrounds to jumpstart their way into tech. Larger tech companies often sponsor these programs, recognising that a capable mid-career professional can probably learn the ropes of a new career faster than industry insiders would imagine, and the fresh viewpoints they bring are highly valued, as it is precisely the resulting diversity of perspectives that encourages innovative thinking, crucial for adapting to changing market dynamics. Could shipping companies experiment with something similar?
Tech companies are known for greater cross-functional collaboration between departments, including the marketing and the people teams. The skillset of the People & Talent team at a tech company can be more akin to sales and marketing than traditional HR. This informs everything from more inspiring language in job descriptions to a more cutting-edge approach to the channels, such as social media, used to attract talent. A sensation at the 2023 Crew Connect in Manila was the appearance of Ivan Guzman (a Filipino seafarer with 2.2 million TikTok followers). Maritime payments innovator Kadmos, seeking to tap into his seafarer-dense audience for their payments product, sought collaboration with him and conducted his interview at CrewConnect, an example that could be followed if recruiting seafarers, apprentices, or even maritime-curious professionals from other industries, was the goal.
Not every shipping company needs to open a TikTok account, but they should find out where talents are, and meet them there. A good starting point would be to invite the newest team members for a fact-finding conversation about exactly that.
Facilitating bottom-up ideation and innovation is a hallmark of tech companies. Google’s legendary 20% time – allowing employees 20 percent of their time and providing a budget for them to come up with their own innovative projects without top-down direction – was the intrapreneurial catalyst that led to the development of Gmail. Of course, implementing such a policy is easier in tech with its lower costs and speed of product development, but there might be low-risk areas where a shipping company could experiment with bottom-up innovation. Why not start by giving teams time to brainstorm on exactly this question: Could we be more innovative? Furthermore, serious efforts to experiment in this way would be a tangible story to tell future talents about a culture of innovation, and a hearty, authentic alternative to the thin adjective-soup that employer (re)branding can become.
Strategic resilience, “long-termism” and authenticity: The shipping industry’s biggest assets
Shipping can certainly learn from tech when it comes to attracting and developing talent, and in so doing may find that a greater diversity of perspectives, plus intrapreneurial initiatives, build capacity for innovation and new competitiveness. But shipping should not rush to copy tech in every aspect. The rusting hulls of tech startups, who steered away from solid fundamentals and unit economics and were wrecked on the rocks of "hypergrowth” in their clamor to scale on the back of VC cash injections, should serve as a warning.
Their burned-out founders might wish they could have spent more time observing the strategic resilience and “long-termism” that is a hallmark of the shipping industry, perennially planning for and weathering cyclical ups and downs, rather than making big bets that the only way is up. Or they might wish they had advice in their ear from industry veterans with several decades honing their know-how in the sector, who could tell them about the difficulties and timelines of implementing complex change.
The traditions that have developed through years of experience and careful evolution are not to be sniffed at. For someone moving from the world of tech into shipping, they’ll be struck
by the sense of esoteric tradition. In a world where uniqueness is increasingly valued, and yet increasingly rare, as algorithms and AI flatten idiosyncrasy, employers that offer uniqueness and authenticity in a world of same-ish companies will be in high demand. The shipping industry's quirks, while they might seem old-fashioned (Eisbeinessen anyone?), offer those authentic experiences. It’s often said that shipping is a people's business, and in the age of AI, that too will hold new value and meaning. In seeking to build the next generation of tech-savvy maritime talent, these traditions, and focus on people, if combined with a willingness to try new things and innovate, could be the ingredients of a truly compelling employer brand and a unique organisational identity.
1 Gardner, N., Chubb, N., Kenny, M., “A Changed World: The state of digital transformation in a post COVID-19 maritime industry”, Thetius, 2021 (https://thetius.com/changed-world/)
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