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Training – someone else’s problem

Photo: Marcus Hand seafarers.jpg
It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that the poor treatment of seafarers by too many governments and their agencies during the pandemic has made their career markedly less attractive.

We might also deduce that this behaviour will not have encouraged seafarers to prolong these experiences and many will decide that enough is enough and the shore side beckons – permanently. We might also factor in the findings of the ICS-Bimco regular review of the workforce which, without these pandemic-related problems has pointed to shortages of ships’ officers ahead. Thus are the seeds of another manpower crisis sown.

Curiously, as the industry focuses on the more fashionable problems of decarbonisation and the lack of diversity in the maritime sector, the issue of actually replenishing the seafaring workforce has been put on the back burner. Despite well-meaning campaigns to enthuse the public about maritime industry opportunities, there is still a marked reluctance in the shipping industry to “grow its own” and invest in training. And nowhere is this more critical in the provision of berths aboard ships for cadets and trainees where they can obtain their necessary sea time qualifications.

For too many shipping companies, on-board trainees are seen to be an unaffordable burden. And why bother, when it is far easier and infinitely cheaper to merely poach ships’ officers who have been trained at somebody else’s expense. The excuses are many. There is no suitable accommodation for a couple of cadets, or the working pattern of the hard-pressed officers would not allow them time to properly mentor the trainees. Training, with all its college time and insistence on degrees, is just too expensive for a sector struggling to earn a reasonable reward.

This lack of on-board training opportunities for sea time has become an almost universal complaint among those charged with educating sea staff. Even the big third- party ship managers, who run their own educational facilities, find reluctance among their clients to step up to the training plate. It was not too many years ago that one of the world’s largest said that such was the sea time problem that if one of their clients would partner with them to supply a ship that could carry a reasonable number of cadets, they would run it at no cost to the client. There were no takers.

Years later and something of a council of despair seems to have taken over, with suggestions that actual sea time requirements could be considerably shortened and even increasingly replaced by simulation and even more remorselessly shore-based than it is already. And on the face of it, this would be much easier than trying to persuade ship operators to take some trainees off to sea on their ships. And if modern air forces can train their fast jet pilots without having them get into a real cockpit and burn a lot of fuel, surely there is a case for more maritime simulator training? Senior ships’ officers, who are already nervous about their junior watchkeepers who have barely kept a watch at sea, are understandably worried about the further diminution of their on-board experience.

It was some time ago that the Indian government, in a submission to the International Maritime Organisation, suggested that it should be made mandatory for ships over a certain size to carry trainees. Sadly, this failed to solicit any support and never resurfaced, although it surely had much merit. It was also something that would be impossible to justify in unilateral terms, as any national flag, bold enough to embark on such a policy would inevitably find its fleet shrinking with owners fleeing to more accommodating registers without such requirements.

Should we have to “bribe” owners to train the people who they need to make money for them, through helpful Tonnage Tax regimes? It is a way of getting some berths for trainees, although if the owners have no intention of ever employing these young people once they have qualified, what’s the point?

So, the industry will blunder on as usual, with no long-term strategy, the poachers beavering away at the expense of others, with the crisis bound to get worse and those willing to grow their own remaining in the minority. Training remains in the sights of the bean counters as a cost rather than an investment and young people, lured to a sea career - or persuaded by a lack of alternative employment - will find it ever harder to get that sea experience they really need for their qualifications. It shouldn’t be like this.