Home' Ships and Shipping : February 2011 Contents Learning to appreciate seafarers
Thoughts from the distinguished maritime commentator Michael Grey MBE.
Every five years, since 1990 when it first appeared, the
shipping organisations BIMCO and the International Shipping
Federation have collaborated in a global survey of maritime
manpower to establish some idea of supply and demand for
officers and ratings.
It matters a great deal, because these are genuinely “essential”
workforces, without whom world trade would judder to a halt, and
it seems extraordinary that until this initiative, nobody had the
faintest idea of these numbers.
Perhaps, as we tended to man ships with people from our own
nations up to the 1980s, it didn’t matter so much. But once the
principle of open registers had become firmly established,
shipowners started to shop around for their manpower in what
was to become a great maritime labour bazaar.
So every five years, the BIMCO and ISF Manpower Update has
caused shipowners to shiver in their shoes, pointing to the need
for continual training, if at some unspecified time, ships might be
left alongside for the lack of seafarers to take them to sea. It has
been a regular restatement of implied threat, which is arguably
necessary when so many ship operators have got into the habit of
merely poaching other people’s personnel, considering that
recruitment and training are too much trouble.
History informs those willing to study it that in an industry
where long term manpower policies involve finding a second
engineer with a tanker endorsement to fly to a ship in Singapore
next Tuesday, we regularly veer from complacency to blind panic.
The Manpower Update has urged those with rather more brain
cells to curb their foolish casual labour ways and look to the future.
It is very necessary work, not least because of demographics which
show a preponderance of OECD senior officers dropping off their
perches at the conclusion of their careers, being replaced with far
less experienced folk, largely from what we like to call the
There is also a secondary trend that is observable in these
countries like China, India and the Philippines, which shows that
officers are staying at sea for shorter and shorter periods, before
swallowing the anchor. It is partly a factor of their better earning
ability in the international fleet, where pay has increased, and
officers do not have to stay afloat as long before they can afford
to leave seafaring. It is also a fact that in both India and China,
there is a lot more choice of employment and jobs ashore
(possibly in the maritime infrastructure) for well qualified and
The latest Manpower Update, which was published in
December, was, at least on the surface, rather less frightening for
the industry than its predecessors, not least because the financial
crash, layups and a slow-down in the number of new ships
entering service had damped down demand. Supply has also been
increased, partly because of the earlier warnings, so the shipping
industry might be forgiven for heaving a collective sigh of relief.
And while the world is awash with the ratings it needs, it is
officers which are the problem. The Update postulates a number of
different scenarios depending on fleet growth, and the shortages of
officers expected in 2015 range from two percent, in a sort of
low-growth scenario, to 11 percent, if people start ordering ships
with enthusiasm again, which is always possible.
We are informed that there are 624,000 officers available at
present, which might seem a lot, but this figure is pretty
meaningless when you consider that it is skills and experience, and
not mere bodies, that count. I still return regularly to a
conversation I had with a ship manager, who paid off his crew for
one that was cheaper, and then had to re-engage them when the
new bunch failed to get the engine started. The Update notes that,
“any training programme provided must ensure quality is not
compromised in the quest for increasing quantity”. In our industry
you really do have to spell out the bleeding obvious!
The fact is that they don’t build “idiot-proof” ships and
machinery any more. Personnel quality really matters as never
before, if you just think about the sophistication of modern
machinery. Just consider the damage that the inadequately
trained, uninitiated or inexperienced can do; the frightful liabilities
that might accrue to anyone who has put a ship or machinery in
such incompetent hands.
Seafarers are not the flexible friends they were once, able to leap
aboard a ship at the last minute and take her to sea with a brief
look at what was available to assist them in this aim. Whether it is
the “integrated navigation” display equipment, the main and
auxiliary machinery and the cargo handling and pumping
equipment, “competence” really does mean more than a
certificate. Led by the oil companies, charterers are now specifying
the actual experience of crew members in their particular rank
which will be necessary before they will agree to hire a vessel. It is
up to the operator to ensure that such experienced hands are in
place. They have all read the gloomy “post mortems” issued by the
claims departments of P&I Clubs, showing how some foolish
action by an inexperienced and badly trained person had
calamitous consequences, occasioning eye-watering claims.
So mere numbers are not enough. The onus is on operators to
recruit, train and above all retain those experienced people who
can run their ships safely and well. This suggests that seafarers
need to be valued, appreciated and given the status upgrade they
deserve. Not before time.
February 2011 SHIPS AND SHIPPING
06 Grey Power:Layout 1 21/1/11 3:06 PM Page 6
Links Archive January 2011 March 2011 Navigation Previous Page Next Page