January 01, 2009

Validating tickets.

Don’t ask me where, but the last revalidation/upgradation course I sat through was no different from the rest I have attended. It was ill conceived, ill equipped, poorly structured, incoherent, unsystematic, largely irrelevant, badly disseminated and unprofessionally conducted by poorly motivated faculty. It left me more confused than upgraded. (Incidentally, I object to the term ‘upgradation’ here, which makes me feel like a public washroom under repair).

Modular courses, conducted for either certification or as part of company in house training, are equally dismal. I am convinced, overall, that the gap between industry demand and ill trained supply is steadily widening. The last time this happened, we got STCW95 imposed on us. I wonder if there is a tougher STCW2012 out there waiting to be mandated, soon after STCW2010. If so, it is prudent for us to consider a revamp of maritime education and training before that happens, else we will undoubtedly react with concomitant confusion and consequent botched implementation once again.

One systemic problem with maritime education and training (MET for the acronymically inclined) is that it is seen by too many as an incidental add on; one that is designed to hopefully make us better navigators and engineers and nothing more. The fact is, however, that MET has to be seen in a wider context beyond just activity leading to skilled behaviour. To me, therefore, the feeble minded management of MET is part of the larger malaise of the industry’s backward human resources management. More distressingly, it is a symptom of an industry which historically does not prepare for tomorrow, and is therefore found wanting whenever tomorrow inevitably arrives. Education and training has to be an integral part of any professional industry. In shipping, the hiring of a mariner, his or her retention and preparation for advancement in a maritime career on board or ashore have to be declared and desired outcomes of the entire exercise.

Take our system, in India, of training navigating officers. The Indira Gandhi Open University affiliated course has been proved a disaster, and so have many others run by private maritime Institutes. The thrust seems to be in selling a short sea time component while tying up with universities in India and abroad to offer fancy sounding degrees or diplomas. I would much rather the thrust be, at this stage, on making a navigating seafarer out a landlubber. Reducing the sea time component is hardly the best way to do that.

The usual Distance Learning Programmes require the cadet to do regular and extensive daily study at sea. Quite apart from the fact that cadets simply do not have the time on busy and short manned ships these days, putting pressure on a system aboard to have the trainee concentrating on bookish (and often redundant or inappropriate) knowledge whilst at sea is akin to making scrambled eggs for dinner when there is steak available at the table. The trainee can hit the books anytime. However, he can get practical training only when he is on board. The result of this warped system is senior officers and Masters writing off the DLP, and, worse, not finding the time to teach the cadet a million other small things that make a good seaman. I have seen this happen so often that I have my own (unprintable) acronym for the DLP programme.

I suggest that the DLP be drastically amended to include many more aspects of practical knowledge, keeping purely academic topics aside for shore study. I also suggest that sufficient time be mandated in the system for senior officers to be able to train in ship specific, current and useful stuff of their choosing.

This brings me to another issue. Mixed nationality crews, overworked or uninterested (in training) Masters and officers and the propensity of cadets to be used as cheap clerical labour in these days of shipboard administrative overload all do little towards a trainee’s professional advancement. This must be addressed today. There are no easy solutions to some of these problems, but we have to find some. I suspect these solutions will be found more within the specifics of each company rather than a generalised ‘one size fits all’ worldview. However, I know that if I were running a company, one parameter I would evaluate personnel and systems on would be the transference of knowledge from one generation to the next. That is only logical.

Delivery systems across the gamut of MET are often a bad joke in India, and they seem to get worse the higher one rises in rank at sea. The dilution of the quality of these courses is widespread. Some of the reasons why this happens have been mentioned already. Perhaps the only idea of attending and conducting a course is to receive, or issue, a certificate at the end of it. Institutes follow regulatory guidelines and are content with mediocrity. Mariners attend courses with a ‘when rape is inevitable’ outlook and are content with not getting their money’s worth. Meanwhile, the professional ability of each generation of seafarers is slowly going down the tube. This is a problem of attitude, not infrastructure or expertise. We can mandate everything else, but obdurate attitude has to be fixed from within.

Company sponsored training runs to similar patterns. Actually, I am surprised that more companies have not moved to web based internet training and evaluation modules or systems. In this era of elearning and videoconferencing, the mountain can, indeed, come to Muhammad. There is no reason for mariners to be flown across countries, or even beyond them, to train. Training (and evaluation) modules can be easily and professionally made and put up on websites for employees to log in and use. This can be a timed exercise; a built in evaluation system can be programmed to ensure quality and confirm understanding. Taking this a step further, an additional online forum would facilitate exchange of professional information between all elements of a company, seafarers and shore personnel alike. Many organisations, including some in India, are already geared to produce software; many already have generic software available. I see tremendous advantage in cost and quality in using this avenue for MET.

Videoconferencing can well be a decent substitute for many seminars, at least those that do not go beyond a series of lectures and ‘presentations’. This would control transportation and hotel costs at a time when these costs are likely to come under greater owner scrutiny. Company recruitment offices across the country could well become centers for such activity; even hiring a business centre for a day is considerably cheaper than flying. Additionally, the requirement of expensive training centers could well reduce. I see their future role mainly in conducting simulator based training, which may not be always possible online. However, by and large, location is well immaterial today. A software company I worked with was running an entire and complicated ongoing commercial end to end solution in the US while sitting in India; in comparison, ongoing software requirements for maritime training is peanuts.

Another advantage is that software can be easily modified, for example, when regulations change or improvements are made. Books, slides, and such paraphernalia are much harder to amend. Besides, doing so cuts down even more trees.

It is also high time that we in India looked at education and training as a means of preparing senior seafarers for jobs ashore. That we do not do so, at least in any structured way, is symptomatic of a chaotic system which does not still take into account that, more so today, many seafarers want to move ashore after a few years at sea. We do have some education on offer, but it does not inspire too much confidence. In the absence of such MET, we have the damaging practice of many seafarers enrolling for general management degrees and moving away from the maritime industries. Previously trained talent is thus lost. An MBA, marketable as it is, is a poor substitute for well constructed and disseminated professional training that would empower such a mariner to seek shore employment within the industry. Other industries train towards greater responsibilities. We only cater to existing ones, which is foolish.

The UK is already worried about the future of its shipping supremacy due to shortage of skilled personnel. Our aim in India should be to threaten the City of London when it comes to shipping commerce. All maritime activity is underpinned by direct shipping operations. It is pathetic that we have a well educated and English language skilled maritime workforce that we allow to either wither away, or move away elsewhere. Once again, there is no real reason for this except Indian maritime industry shortsightedness. Ship manning is at the lowest end of the food chain; it says a lot about the attitudes in our industry that we are content with residues. With proper training and education, we could be a powerhouse in the chartering and reinsurance markets, to name just two lucrative areas. We could be the centre of the world in broad maritime commercial activity.

Finally, India cannot expect to be called a serious player in the maritime industry unless it boasts of a robust ‘industry research’ element. Whether in naval architecture or hydrodynamics, global seafarer issues or tonnage projections, nautical research or safety related trends and databases, any serious maritime player must have a system of examining, testing and questioning facts and hypotheses. I do not see our industry involved here at all. I also do not see us pressurising government towards promoting such initiatives; maybe a Maritime University sanctioned after years of political flim flamming is all we hope for. If this is the best we can do, then we should be content to just supply labour to the global merchant fleet. We should be content to let our maritime potential go waste. We should be content to see the industry wither away because of poor education and training. Like Brando in ’On the waterfront’, the Indian maritime industry can then say, later, ‘I coulda been a contender’.

Professional education and training is a commodity in itself and not a sideshow. It structures appropriately, is funded sufficiently and seeks erudite and updated professionals to deliver it. It is not just a litany of regulations and slides parroted out by bored instructors to half asleep audiences. It seeks to enlighten and empower, not deaden and confuse. It is global, so it takes the best practices from education in other fields and embraces them. It is technologically perceptive and more; it sometimes even forecasts technology. It feeds, and is fed by professional research. It finds ways to motivate both trainers and trainees. It takes pride in keeping the industry it serves always updated and always improving. It takes pride in its own high standards.

That does not sound like the maritime education and training that I know of. In the one I am familiar with, the drive that goes into revalidation of a Certificate of Competency seems akin to the drive involved in validation of a parking ticket.