Who Wants To Work At Sea?

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A COUPLE of weeks ago, the 27th Interim Meeting of the Seafarers Committee (SC), Asian Shipowners’ Association (ASA) held a virtual meeting which, among other topics, discussed the supply of seafarers, The Business Times.

The good and bad news

In a statement, the ASA reported some good news: “The Committee is pleased to note that administrations of ASA members are continuing their efforts as ever before to attract more young people to seek a sea-going career, which will greatly assist in the continued promotion of the supply and employment of Asian seafarers.”

Then there was the bad news: “In some Asian countries and regions, however, there are fewer and fewer young people willing to work as seafarers. As a result, the number of third mates and fourth engineer officers is decreasing significantly, and the subsequent supply of seafarers is insufficient. Undoubtedly, the (global coronavirus) epidemic will be accelerating the loss of seafarers, especially young seafarers.”

Finally, there was a warning and a call to action:

 “This situation would result in difficult development, retention and employment of competent seafarers in future. Therefore, more efforts need to be made by all the stakeholders of the shipping industry.”

SailMAP

Singapore has for a long time been pursuing a number of  well-thought-out initiatives to attract young people into the shipping industry. These include the recently launched Sail Milestone Achievement Programme (SailMAP) to provide each seafarer with up to S$50,000 when they attain key career milestones, including a sign-on bonus of S$10,000 when they sign-on their first vessel as a Certificate of Competency (CoC) Class 3 (deck officer) or 5 (marine engineer) holder.

Twenty years ago, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), Singapore Maritime Officers Union and Singapore Organisation of Seamen and local shipping companies launched the Tripartite Maritime Scholarship (TMSS) to help build up a core group of local mariners by aiming to attract and encourage locals to take up seafaring as a career.

About the scholarship

The  scholarship is intended to groom promising students or fresh graduates to be ship masters or chief engineers of ocean-going merchant ships, with the potential to be the future leaders of Singapore’s maritime industry. A total of more than 200 participants have been awarded the TMSS so far.  Last year, 14 Tripartite Maritime Scholarships were awarded, worth about S$1 million.

These initiatives and the existence of a strong nautical training capability make sense for Singapore. The country will always need a significant pool of maritime expertise to ensure its continued development as one of the world’s leading maritime hubs. And the indications are that the policies promoting this are working.

The global situation is different

There is a large Singapore-flagged merchant fleet but it is largely manned by foreign seafarers. For the world’s fleet, it is a numbers game. The industry needs to have a steady influx of young seafarers.

The current conflict in Ukraine has highlighted how susceptible shipping can be to political factors affecting crew supply, something like 14 per cent of seafarers coming from Ukraine or Russia.

However, apart from such unpredictable disruptions,  which incidentally still include the Covid pandemic, there are long term factors which are likely to increasingly affect seafarer supply. One is that life at sea needs to be reasonably congenial.

There are certainly those who believe a serious seafarer recruitment and retention crisis is looming unless governments and ship managers take steps to allow more shore time and improve conditions onboard ships.

In January, the release of the 2021 Seafarers Happiness Index showed seafarer happiness levels had reached an all-time low, driven by the extra strain of spending months aboard without any shore time due to Covid restrictions.

The detailed report

Based on thousands of anonymised responses to 10 key questions, was the latest in a series compiled quarterly by the welfare charity Mission to Seafarers, with support from  marine liability insurer Standard Club and ship manager Wallem. It described an increasingly demoralised workforce already facing heavy workloads and variable conditions aboard feeling the pressure of the lack of shore time, coupled with perceived low wages.

“We are sleepwalking to a manning crisis,” warned Yves Vandenborn, director of loss prevention at Standard Club. “Resentment is brewing amongst this critical workforce due to the lack of shore leave, uncertainty of trip duration, draconian Covid testing and general lack of recognition.”

The report noted that, despite the efforts of the international maritime community over the past 2 years, seafarers were still not designated as key workers. The Standard Club, a signatory to the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change, is again calling on authorities around the world to assign key worker status to the global seafaring workforce to facilitate crew changes and support the logistics of crew travel.

Standard club

Over the last 2 years, Standard Club has worked with its members, providing information as well as recommending and sharing best practice strategies to improve seafarer well-being during the pandemic. The Club is now urging the wider industry to prioritise seafarers’ conditions.

While shore-leave and travel restrictions are out of the hands of shipping companies, life onboard is not and varies widely across the industry. The Seafarers Happiness Index report clearly shows that the ability to keep fit and healthy, the provision of good Internet connections, training and protected rest hours, correlate with seafarer happiness levels.

In other words, a whole range of issues relating to life onboard need addressing. Missing from the above list, however, is the explicit mention of the prevention of fatigue. That has got to be the key to really improving seafarer happiness, and the attractiveness of the sea as a career.

The snag is that sorting out this issue will cost significant amounts of money because it will, generally speaking, mean increasing manning scales, including for officers, and reducing the length of tours of duty onboard. That will probably not happen unless there is a very acute manning crisis and ship operators have to compete aggressively to attract officers and ratings.

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Source: The Business Times

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