Investing in talent

Blackboard concept. Credit: Getty Images

There is a financial imperative for shipping companies to retain qualified, hard-working crew. To do so, they must invest in training and take advantage of innovations occurring in the training sector

Recent discussions surrounding crew abandonment and vessel automation contradicts the fact that many seafarers are in a relatively strong negotiating position. With dwindling numbers of personnel available, and little changing on the autonomous vessels front – despite the hype – trained crew are to be sought after, and once found, retained.

In fact, this is much of the imperative behind the sudden mass adoption of high-throughput broadband connections on ships. Following the increase in the availability of satellite data, thanks in large part to the launch of Inmarsat’s Global Xpress network five years ago, connections are more stable with higher throughput. Crew can now video call with their families, as well as watch television in their downtime, at relatively low cost to the shipowner. The possibilities of using satcoms data for operational improvements are also being explored, although the market is still immature.

However, this is another, more abstract, way shipowners can improve their performance. While for some operators, it may seem like a risk of capital to invest in crew training, when seafarers might then leave the company – others realise that it is far more of a risk to put poorly trained seafarers in charge of a multimillion dollar asset. Sadly, some shipowners are very averse to this kind of spending, said training expert Richard Turner, head of Tapiit.

In fact, recent research by Lloyd’s Maritime Academy finds that as many as 41% of 500 maritime professionals polled received no funding from their employer for training. An implausible statistic, but one that Turner said is feasible. “The pressure has always been on the seafarer to get their statutory certifications,” he said. “I think one of the biggest problems within the industry is a lack of consideration as to what to do with that individual, whether to give them the support and training to remain within the company.”

Yet, Turner acknowledged that training ships’ crew can be difficult and expensive. Organising classroom training for groups of people who keep moving around is logistically challenging; most of the expenses associated with crew training, do not come from the courses themselves. “What makes training expensive is getting people there. Visas, flights, [and] hotels.”

To reduce these costs and encourage more companies to send staff on courses, Turner’s company Tapiit aims to become a kind of HotelBooking.com for crew training; a one-stop shop for booking any course on offer around the world, ultimately reducing associated costs with bookings. “We have the world’s largest database of training providers,” explained Turner. “So, if you’ve got a vessel, and it’s docked in London, you can look to see if there’s any training that covers those courses.” This, in theory, means much reduced training budgets associated with peripheral costs.

Turner also argued that the kind of training that crews actually need may be very different from the type that first occurs to most shipowners. Traditionally, all training has been focused on technical competencies, but while this is extremely valuable, it alone does not address one of the most vital attributes a crew can have – the ability to work together. “Yes, you can have your STCW, firefighting, first aid; that makes you competent, but it doesn’t tell people how you’re going to behave.” he said. However, simluation training is a valuable learning tool at shipping companies’ disposal that can provide a means for the industry to understand seafarers’ needs.

“Shipping is moving towards what the airline industry has been doing for years now,” Turner said. “Every few months pilots have to do simulator training, to examine how the leaders are leading.” Putting a crew into a simulator can provide valuable insights into improving the working dynamics of a team, and could help to improve onboard safety, Turner suggests.

“The way simulator facilities are being used is changing. The research is starting to demonstrate how to understand the people in your organisations – to get an idea of how they work together both in everyday situations and stressful ones.”

This is addressing a major issue in maritime, which has emerged in part thanks to multinational crews, and elsewhere, thanks to rigid hierarchies of rank. “When this was first brought out, it was shown that people who had been in leadership positions didn’t have the skills to make decisions,” Turner said. “If you go through the MAIB accident reports, you can see that there’s been a breakdown in the effectiveness of teams working together.

“A lot of the time you’ll see that officers are going on deck and getting themselves injured, because they are only going once a week, while the other crew are there every day.”

K-Sim, a platform developed by Kongsberg Maritime, is one such simulation solution on the market that can provide a common framework for simulating different vessel types. Leif Pentti Halvorsen, VP Products, Maritime Simulation, Kongsberg Digital, stressed that the principle of getting crew members of all stripes to work together is integral to the K-Sim design ethos, with various facilities connected to create the impression of a complete vessel. A recent example is a contract for Kongsberg Maritime to deliver a “comprehensive LNG simluator package”, that includes a ship bridge and engine desktop simulator, which interfaces with a LNG Gas Carrier-M cargo handling simulator.

Halvorsen hopes that training in simulators will become the norm for crews. “While the aviation industry is compelled to use simulator training for flight deck staff, this is not the case for the maritime sector,” he said. “However, we are fortunate that a significant majority of maritime authorities, shipping, crewing and service companies understand clearly that modern simulators are an essential ingredient of any training program for crew members, whatever their job is. It’s this that has helped to bring the use of simulators into the mainstream.”

Raising the bar

Despite it being common that 8–15 crew members share responsibility for a floating warehouse containing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of containerised goods, or worse, crude oil or chemicals, there is no denying that many seafarers are being treated as disposable, or replaceable. Recent scandals with respect to Elite Way Marine Services, for example, attest to this. The company abandoned more than 40 seafarers off the UAE coast in the last few years, in what was a high-profile, but ultimately classic case, illustrative of a larger problem.

For shipowners that subscribe to this sort of thinking, it makes little sense to invest in good training, let alone continuous professional development (CPD). Seafarers know this; without evidence that there are opportunities for career progression in mind, they are simply less likely to want to stay working for that company. Lloyd’s Maritime Academy’s research appears to back this up, with 40% of respondents declaring that retention is a challenge for their business.

Happily, it does appear that the culture of shipping is changing for the better, with Turner stating that the viewpoint that there is a “cheap seafarer” is no longer a reality; all seafarer cost rates, whether they are from the Philippines, India, or China. “It went through a very bad patch where you had flags that allowed bad behaviour. While there are shipping lines out there that still push the boundaries, the industry in general is becoming more professional,” said Turner.

Ultimately, training seafarers effectively can be regarded as a demonstration of the shipping company’s integrity and willingness to look after the cargo with which it is entrusted; but it is also a way to ensure that seafarers want to stay with the organisation, too. “It’s up to us to try and make the industry attractive, and retain these people,” Turner concluded.

This is an excerpt of the SAS December edition. To have access to the full article, and more SAS features, please subscribe here.