June 14, 2008

Monster's Maritime Ball

In the last few weeks, panicked voices from the manning world within the Industry, like postcards written from the edge, seem to have become shriller. Perhaps this is an illusion; perhaps it is just coincidence that a few reports and surveys have been published recently. The Ship talk recruitment survey was one. The Drewry/PAL associates report, "Manning 2008" was another, and of course, Lloyd's Lists' "Seafarers 2008" event in Singapore was, perhaps, the icing on the cake, or the final nail in the coffin, depending on how maudlin we maritime folk were feeling.

And, depending on whom you read when, or what event you attended where, alarming figures are bandied about. Thirty four thousand officers short already this year. An additional sixty thousand required over the next four years. A thousand officers short in the Indian domestic market; after some time these numbers, like Bill Gates' billions, overwhelm and don't mean much at all, except, of course, that phrases like 'unprecedented manning crisis' stay in one's mind.

So, let us reduce all this cacophony to one statement: In the next four years, almost ninety thousand qualified officers are projected to be additionally required by our world's shipping fleet.

Additional to what we have, and seemingly out of thin air. No wonder there is an acute sense of panic out there. All seems dark and gloomy.

Now and to paraphrase Santana, all you sinners, put the lights on and take several deep breaths, because this is what I see happening:

One, as the honchos at Bear Stearns will tell you, every boom has a bubble and every rose has a thorn. With the world's largest consumer, the USA, in recession and with growth rates in India and China slowing down a bit, trade is likely to drop. Figures out of Europe and Japan are not too encouraging either; in addition, inflationary pressures and oil prices are high. The food crisis worldwide and upcoming elections in the USA and India will result in politicians becoming more protectionist: witness the Indian governments on/off policies in recent times on everything from cement to sugar to food grains.

Not good signs. I am not saying that trade will stop, far from it, but a slowdown is likely. Boom graphs cannot be extrapolated to infinity. The consequence of such a slowdown is likely to ease the pressure on manpower to an extent; how much, of course, remains the million dollar question.

Two, the Industry will press for, and win, even smaller manning requirements from Flag States. This process has already begun. Indian authorities have recently reduced the requirement for one navigating officer on bulkers "on a trial basis" (this probably means that unless there is a major accident with a consequent hue and cry, the shorter manning will continue). There are already rumblings about reducing the number of engineers on board. Questions are even being raised about the Chief Engineer's role. My opinion is this: we need a Chief Engineer like we need a Master, because we in the industry need a fall guy when things go wrong. Who will fulfill that critical role?

Three, we will drift inexorably towards 'Creative Manning'. Place a BCom graduate as admin officer and remove the third mate. Place two welders (call them fitters, though) and remove a junior engineer. No Chief Engineer available, can we sail short 'on dispensation? The aim of the exercise will be to reduce the number of certified officers and engineers on board at any given time to the bare minimum as provided for in the Safe Manning certificate.

Four, and while still on the manning certificate, commercial pressure on Flag States to 'review' these certificates will increase. Review downwards, obviously. We will get creative here again, showing, on paper, non existent technical and operational shore support to persuade Flag States that skeleton crews will still be in line with all rules, including the STCW ones on rest periods. As things get worse, some owners may even threaten to change to more malleable Flags if their demands are not met.

Five and related, increased pressure on statutory agencies to do two things: Reduce sea time requirements for trainees and also pressure to pass them through the examination system faster. These pressures are already underway and are nothing new. We need certified warm bodies now, says the industry; we don't really care how competent they are.

Six, pressure on Class and internal auditors not to examine systemic non conformities too closely. We are short manned and it is tough to get good people, you know, so don't push things too much. Let the facade remain.

Seven, faster promotions, shorter contracts and higher wages on offer. We can have crews fatigued beyond the STCW convention but we can't have them burnt out. They have to return, though we will try fair and foul means to extend their tenures on board. Sometimes we prefer to burn them out even if they don't return to us. And we would rather promote before time even if it adds another less than competent officer to our fleet.
Seagoing wages will continue to rise till the business model can't take it any more, or till ….

Eight, China will, sooner or later, begin to supply manpower to the maritime world. The Philippines will increase its market share. Officers from the Philippines, some already under fire for perceived lower standards, will increase. This is because many Filipinos have the English language advantage which Indian crews often do not. Indian ship managers have already pointed to the Chinese storm on the horizon; given the disparity in the two (actually three, if you include the Philippines) nationalities wages and difficulties in getting new Indian bodies into the industry, this is just a matter of time.

Nine, many in the industry will revert to a bygone era's worst practices. Sitting on mariners' passports and documents, not relieving seafarers on time, promising the moon and delivering the gutter and poaching like drunken gypsies are tactics some are well experienced in.
Many seafarers will get more and more unreasonable; many of these prima donnas will skip jobs for a few dollars more, make outlandish demands and otherwise behave unprofessionally. This will feed the unprofessional on the other side of the fence; ship managers who will impatiently await a time when supply exceeds demand, so they can, in turn, treat seafarers badly. As children do, each side will bawl and say, "But he started it".

Ten and a critical assumption here, which is this: The Maritime Industry, with its present small resource pool of Officers, will fail to address, in the short term, the Officer crisis with any authority on its own. This is because of two main reasons (though I am sure we can all list several more)

a) It is fire fighting time now; issues pertaining to immediate shortages will consume the industry, not five year plans.
b) The maritime industry has no history of managing manpower well, and it does not seem to have the will or expertise to do so this time around either. Supply and demand have always balanced out in spite of our managers, not because of them. Maybe the Chinese will balance the scales this time.

In all this drama, my fear is this. At a time when ships are getting more complex, sea lanes are getting busier and casualty figures are rising, all these 'solutions', unplanned and inevitable as they may be, will cascade into an alarming downward spiral in safety standards. Less experienced officers, faster promotions, untested nationalities, pressures on statutory and non statutory organisations and cuts in present skeleton crews will all contribute to a world fleet which will be increasingly unsafe. Safer seas and cleaner oceans will remain a slogan and a pipe dream.

It is ironic that the industry, whether in boom times or bust cycles, always seems to lower quality; in a boom by leaning towards cutting corners in skilled manpower to keep ships moving and in a bust by cutting corners in ship maintenance to save money. Ironic, but not surprising, because we are conditioned to only looking at the short term. The long term doesn't matter, we think. In the long term we are all dead.

At the moment, the industry is in a bit of panic, like the man who dreams that a monster is sitting on his chest, trying to choke him to death. The man awakes in great fear, and actually sees the monster sitting on him! The man cries aloud "What is going to happen to me??!!??"

The monster grins at him and says "Don't ask me, it's your dream."


published in http://www.marexbulletin.com/


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