December 31, 2015

Substitute for thought

What most jargon seeks to achieve is exclusivity and a promotion of the notion that the user of a language few understand is somehow more efficient or more professional than the rest of us. Never mind that we see through the game; never mind that jargon is usually pretentious, inaccurate and jarring to the ears. The cute acronyms and the sonorous phrase is meant to awe and impress those not in the inner circle; that is its main function.

Shipping- the birthplace of the wonderfully imaginative language of the lascars- has reduced itself today to stealing jargon from wherever it can find it. Managers love to ‘introduce’- usually at seminars where hostage seamen have no option but to listen- some ‘new concept’ under a suitably impressive sounding name and pretend it is their invention. That it is usually copied and pasted from other professions- often general management or, with safety, the airlines industry- is beside the point. What is not is that this jargon- like all others- misleads, substitutes style for substance and tries, consciously and otherwise, to make a fool of us all.

The jargon shipping likes to steal is also often plain incorrect and is sometimes intended to be so. Take the term ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,’ applied particularly in the last few years to seamen pirate hostages. To me, PTSD is simply shell shock, but by giving it a softer, less urgent sounding acronym, the industry- like the many armies who have substituted the term PTSD for shell shock- downplays the debilitating nature of the problem and pretends it is not urgent. The softer sounding PTSD allows everybody to postpone treatment or ignore the problem altogether. They may actually have to do something about it if they called it what is actually is- shell shock.

Another one I always find wistfully amusing is ‘Near Miss’ because it always brings up the image of a pretty girl walking by so close that I can smell her perfume. That, folks, is a near miss. Two ships almost colliding in the middle of the Pacific is not a near miss. It is a near hit and should be called so. I will bet that, if you called it a Near Hit, everybody- including the people on the ship- would take the incident much more seriously. (Besides, how can you nearly miss? That is like saying somebody is nearly pregnant.)

Don’t forget the stolen management jargon! Don’t get me started on the meaningless, annoying words that we love to steal from those business executives who are busy justifying their existence and who our managers love to copy. Even the word ‘management’ is quite useless- everybody who works manages something or the other- but it is still less galling than many others that shipping loves to ape. Phrases like ‘pushing the envelope’, ‘paradigm shift’, ‘leverage’, ‘core competency,’ ‘CSR activities,’ ‘empowerment’, ‘our corporate values’ (Ha Ha) and ‘Best Practices’ are (sorry, Shakespeare) “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

My favourite, however, is ‘take it to the next level’. (Maybe they should just take it away instead and be done with it.)

I suppose all jargon is, in the end, a deficit of imagination. But that would still okay; the problem becomes when jargon is used, intentionally or otherwise, to mask real meaning. And the problem is that jargon is too often used- in shipping and elsewhere- as a substitute for thought. 


December 18, 2015

The groupies in Indian shipping

Let me say, first of all, that I am going to avoid using the word ‘seafarer’ from now on. I am a proud seaman and refuse to be an airy fairy seafarer. And, since most of the people sailing on commercial ships are men, the generic word I will use is seamen. The few women out there-may their tribe increase! - are free to call themselves seawomen. I think they might prefer that anyway. 

The irrational exuberance in Indian shipping circles about the performance of the present government defies logic, or perhaps it is the contrast that has everybody all excited, since shipping has been neglected for decades in the country. Even though the many announcements made by the Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari are welcome, intentions do not mean too much on their own. The fact is, for example, that Indian government controlled ports will continue to struggle for the usual reasons for a long time even if they are (kind of) corporatised, that Indian shipbuilding will remain in the doldrums regardless of whatever sops are thrown its way and that connecting inland waterways or building hundreds of small ports will take decades even if there is continuity of policy and priority, since we do not have the crapload of money that will be required to do this. There is no need to get so excited about what are, in the end and so far, just plans.

None of these facts stops the establishment from behaving like a bunch of star struck teenage girls mooning over Brad Pitt. Delve deeper into this phenomenon, though, and you find that the crowd of groupies is made up of one or more of the following: the usual line-up of businessmen with links to politicians, blinkered supporters that this government has attracted ever since its inception, opportunists hoping to make a quick buck out of empty air, industry bodies trying to peddle influence and professional bodies run by outdated mariners trying to gain some influence so that they can pretend to be relevant. The lure of money and power prevails on the back of a faith in the corrupt system and the mistaken belief that announcements trump viability, capability or delivery.

What is remarkable- though hardly unexpected- in all this is that there is nothing mentioned about the establishment-sponsored plague that has hit Indian seamen for decades. Okay, sorry, there was one solitary announcement: granting some Indian seamen working on Indian registered ships- not all, not by a long shot- parity with Indians working on foreign flags when it came to income tax. That this is too little and far too late is almost beside the point; the really big problems that plague our seamen are not.

The huge falling-competency issue in Indian seamen make it unlikely that India will be a maritime superpower (how the groupies love that term!) anytime soon. Where will the thousands of competent ex-seamen required in maritime operations, insurance, classification, shore establishments, dredging and administration et al come from for this to happen? There is dead silence from the government or the groupies on this question. Can’t blame them since they are not looking beyond their noses; in any case, most are akin to short-term touts with no long term interest in the game.

That this competency issue is directly related to the endemic massive corruption in the recruitment of Indian seamen, the degrading of the profession or the cavalier- spiteful, even- treatment of Indian officers and crews is not spoken of in any official circles, leave alone addressed. There is no announcement on how we are going to address this problem. There are no plans for cleaning up the system that, incidentally, is run by many of the same groupies that are swooning over everything else. No ideas on how we will attract calibre. Those plans would be useless without cleaning up the act anyway, because calibre avoids a rotting carcass.

Somebody needs to tell the groupies that money is easier to attract than people in almost any enterprise. The former requires a robust business plan on paper, which is simpler. The latter requires good sense and a progressive mind-set, both rarities in the cesspool that the shipmanning business in India is today. Somebody should also tell them that announcements, whether made for questionable and corrupt reasons or not, are no substitute for a workable plan that includes, critically, the management of the human resources that will be needed. Somebody should tell them you can’t grow Indian shipping without growing the numbers and competence of Indian seamen and that the first step towards that is to begin to treat seamen like human beings.

But that somebody is not me. I am not going to tell them this, because that would be like breaking wind against thunder. Because, you see, most of these groupies would not recognise the concept of the development of human resources even if jumped up and bit them in the unmentionables; their regressive attitude is in their DNA.


December 03, 2015

Hot water

By now, the hope at the end of last year that shipping would see some kind of revival in 2015 has given way to near despair. That hope was misplaced anyway; the despair today may not be.

The overwhelming consensus at present seems to be that the global economy is still struggling badly and will continue to do so for some time. Maurice Obstfeld of the IMF put it mildly, I thought, when he said, "Six years after the world economy emerged from its broadest and deepest post-war recession, the holy grail of robust and synchronised global expansion remains elusive." We are in an era where the clamorous predictions of global trade doubling in the next fifteen years are starting to sound increasingly like a pipe dream. Damisa Moyo warned the Danish Maritime Forum last month that the pre-2007 type of economic growth ‘will never return’. Strong words.  I would have used may instead of will, but I am in agreement with some other warnings from the experienced economist, especially her opinion that economies are going to be severely disrupted because of erosion of jobs and that social unrest and terrorism will increase as a result of continuing global economic woes and demographics in both developing and developed economies.

What is worse is that the pumping in of money after the financial crisis a few years ago- the euphemistically named quantitative easing- has created a predictably bizarre situation: stockmakerts are doing relatively well even as industry is doing pretty badly. Meanwhile, the economy is going nowhere, demand has collapsed (see what is happening with commodities) and interest rates are close to zero in much of the developed world. 

Something has to give, and there will be panic when it does.

Shipping has its own particular woes, the biggest one being overcapacity. It has another problem not often spoken about openly- less than competent leadership. It is amazing, for example, that industry leaders in the container business- undoubtedly hit the hardest today- could not read the writing on the wall two years ago when they were ordering megaships like there was no tomorrow. Unsurprisingly, Maersk has reported terrible quarterly results, with profits down an unbelievable 61 percent and revenue down fifteen. Analysts are warning that container ship lay-ups, which have already reached their highest levels in five years, will accelerate and may even reach the high levels of 2009, if you ask me. There are years to go before the excess capacity in this segment will be absorbed. 

The dry sector is hardly doing better, with the Baltic Dry Index down to its lowest levels ever. It has collapsed a staggering 95 percent from its all-time high of 11,793 (in 2008) to, believe it or not, sub 500 levels. The drying up of Chinese demand for iron ore and coal that was predictable five years ago was ignored. In any case, I fear that the commodity meltdown is far from over, and prices and movements may stagnate for years. 

The two big reasons shipping is not completely on its knees today is because a) bunker rates are at record laws and b) large crude oil tankers have done pretty well this year. 

There is a question mark over these tankers continuing to do well, though. Speculators and traders bought oil when prices were falling, but the tankers that were used- essentially floating storage- are already piling up in places like Singapore and  the US Gulf. Because, you see, there are few buyers for the oil. The mini-boom in the crude tanker segment may have given a welcome breather to shipowners, but it may not last indefinitely if speculators do not see quick profits.   
Shipping is, then, today an industry that does not have anything much to cheer about. For my money, it is going to stay that way through the next year or two, at least. I am afraid that we are going to see more blood on the street for a while. 


November 28, 2015

Giving the sea-dog a bad name

I promise not to repost old posts again- at least not soon!- but this is a 2012 one I was forced to recall today.

The notion that a ship's Captain is similar in quality or character to a shore based CEO or senior manager is hogwash that has been promoted by the STCW 'management level' certificate claptrap for far too long. Perhaps this way of defining responsibilities at sea may find some takers among sailors who have a complex about their jobs being inferior to those ashore, but as far as I am concerned, this narrow profiling actually devalues what they do. Because I believe that a Master's job is tougher than a CEO's. In fact, the nuances in leadership, strategic or tactical thinking, physical action and mental agility required of a ship Captain- or, indeed, of any rank of officer or crew at sea- are unique. The 'management' or 'operational' level labels are plainly inaccurate. This is not an office, where a manager does no manual work. This is a ship, whose senior most officers often live in boiler suits these days. 

A CEO ashore is probably responsible for larger amounts of money, but no CEO lives, works and eats with his workforce. No CEO faces the same living conditions as the shop floor worker. No CEO suffers acute fatigue and loss of sleep for prolonged periods while making major decisions that affect directly the physical safety of everybody around, including himself. No CEO picks up a screwdriver at work one minute and handles a multimillion-dollar floating behemoth the next. No CEO makes huge decisions all on his own. No CEO is required to be- within any 24 hour period- alternately a clerk, an operator of machinery or equipment, a HR man, a security in charge, a factory manager, a data entry operator, a communications officer, a cashier, an accountant, a payroll controller, a policeman and an environmental mini-specialist. No CEO is required to work while spending months away from his family at a stretch. No CEO will be arrested for even a major disaster- leave alone a minor accident- in most parts of the world: Bhopal, for example. Hell, a CEO does not even stand on his feet too much or too often; he travels, works and lives in a soothing atmosphere with minions to take care of everything, including his cup of coffee. A  Shipmaster, on the other hand, works in a hostile environment- physical and mental both- that is magnified manifold by most of the people he encounters that are not part of his crew- the antagonistic enemies at the gate. 

When a CEO makes a huge mistake, the company goes bankrupt and everybody loses their jobs; when a Captain makes a huge mistake, everybody dies and everything around is polluted forever.

You may choose what you consider to be the more important job here; my only point is that any sailor's job cannot be compared with any job ashore- and promoting that thinking does every seaman an injustice, is inaccurate and pushes the wrong idea- to prospective and existing seafarers both- of what a mariner's working life is all about.

Actually, I cannot think of any job that compares with a sailor's. A soldier's?  Some similarities do exist here- away from family in a hostile environment, for example, but there are massive differences too. A sailor will not be called upon to face bullets as part of his job description, piracy notwithstanding. A solider's life is simpler than a mariners- no commercial, environmental or such considerations and no job insecurity. On the other hand, although a Bosun's job is more complex than a platoon leader's, the latter is responsible much more for the lives of all his men in combat, and the cost of a mistake- or circumstance- is much higher. In a similar vein, a General is far away from the action, usually, unlike a Shipmaster, but he is responsible for hundreds or thousands of lives and his country's security- a huge responsibility. So, no real parallel exists here either. 

I suggest that we should not even try to find a parallel. Instead, we need to realise that a mariner's job description and responsibilities are unique and leave it at that. A formal job description is required only when there is ambiguity or confusion about role, and shipping has never suffered from that problem. Just say Chief Engineer, and every sailor on earth will know what that man does, his responsibility and his authority. This is true for all other ranks, and on any ship on earth.  We don't need organisation charts at sea; we know clearly what everybody is responsible for.

Unfortunately, what has happened is that shipping has fallen into the management jargon trap where style substitutes for substance- or too often replaces substance. The result is not pretty and is there for all to see. Crews are today groaning under the weight of manuals and checklists that have dubious value but enormous repercussions thanks to stress and fatigue that are a direct result of this nonsense. I see the 'management level' certification and the 'CEO' pretentious blah as an extension of this thinking. 

It may seem like a small thing, the wording on a certificate of competency, but it does matter, and I object strongly to it. Not least because I am a Shipmaster by qualification and profession, not a mere CEO.