April 30, 2009

When Differentship MET Common Sense, Part One.

(The first of a two article series on the major problems, and some possible solutions, to the present poor quality of Maritime Education and Training- MET- in India)

pic courtesy commonsensedogtraining.com

What are the reasons why watch keeping standards are falling at sea?
It is easy to answer the question instinctively, rattle off the usual reasons, and be close to the truth. Also far enough from it.

Short manned ships leading to overworked and fatigued officers. An explosion of administrative and statutory paperwork. Lower academic competence compared to trainees twenty or thirty years ago. Lower levels of commitment all round. Fallout of fewer entrants seeing shipping as a career and not a stopgap arrangement. Poor training and poorer planning. Truncated pre sea training. Poor on board training. Impractical distance learning programmes. One could go on, and one would be essentially correct. One would be almost right.

Almost, but not quite.

Recent opportunity to look at the training world at closer quarters than I am used to, however, threw up some interesting realities. Meshing this with what I have seen in practice aboard modern ships with multinational crews has made me understand a little better the drivers behind each component in the puzzle. I will begin with Pre Sea training. Even ignoring the much maligned IGNOU course in India, the usual alternative: three months Pre Sea, a year and a half or so at sea plus six months of college before appearing for examinations cannot work well, I feel. It is lopsided and weighted against practical learning and we are promoting feel good degrees at the expense of operational safety and professional efficiency.

I will give my opinion, as usual, on what could be better options to the present quagmire next week; meanwhile, here are the most significant reasons why I think the present system is not producing excellence:

The explosion of unethical training institutes: : Barring notable exceptions, many MET institutes run on the poor business model of profits above all else. And so they make elaborate and unrealistic promises to raw recruits. They degrade their own brand by not investing enough in the future and by employing ad hoc (and quite poorly paid) faculty without much examination of the faculty’s knowledge or ability to deliver quality education. This malaise extends to both pre sea and post sea training courses, as any of us who have suffered the revalidation and upgradation process will testify. I call this a poor business model because excellence is far removed from the reality here, and so is customer (trainee and ship owner) satisfaction. Poor facilities and faculty do not make for good education, whatever tie ups one orchestrates with institutions in India or abroad for marketing purposes.

Poor Shipmanagement company practices: Somewhat akin to shady MET institutes, many shipmanagement companies use training as a cash cow while flushing quality down the drain. Billing shipowners exorbitantly for ‘company sponsored courses’ may be fine. Conducting those courses poorly, cheaply, with poor faculty and in a hurried and ill conceived fashion (often clubbing them with joining ship formalities to the detriment of training) is not. The clear message sent out to everybody is that this is not a serious exercise. It is just another brick in the wall.

Lack of long term commitment from the trainees: Recently, a straw poll I took of a fresh faced pre sea class suggested that a third of them were planning to quit sailing within a decade: this when they had not even stepped on board a ship yet! In addition, less than a third saw themselves sailing for most of their professional lives. Where, then, is the motivation? Where do you think these recruits will spend energy in the near future: in increasing professional competence or in dreaming about how to find a way out of what is an occupation but not a profession?

Lack of committed trainers ashore:After navigating at sea for a few decades, I find that, as an educator, I have to spend considerable time preparing to take basic navigation classes. Simply put, some of my principles are rusty. An easy way out would be to stick to the course material; the problem with that, of course, is that teaching poorly or in a blinkered fashion results in students being, well, poorly trained. Another challenge is that the navigational syllabus for a three month pre sea navigational course (remember that this is just one subject amongst many that trainees are taught) has to be particularly well compiled and executed. Basic mathematical concepts and navigational skills cannot be compressed or taught willy nilly. I have to spend quite some time figuring out what sequence of topics would work best, keeping in mind that some trainees are not quite up there with mathematical or language understanding skills. One has to take care not to do a slipshod job of it. I can well imagine a scenario when an educator just phones his classes in, so to speak, after a few months or so. We have all seen that happen too often.

Inappropriate Distance Learning Programmes (DLP) at sea: Considering that the trainees will spend approximately half the time on a ship as compared to their seniors a generation ago, and considering that shipboard watchkeeping procedures, equipment, regulations and operations are now infinitely more complex (and shortmanned), a trainee concentrating on his DLP schedule on board instead of practical stuff is clearly being poorly trained. At sea, I have barred cadets’ DLP study on the bridge (a common practice) on many a ship and stressed practical watchkeeping instead. I feel quite strongly that Masters must ensure that cadets use the truncated time they have on board today to learn the practices of seamanship rather than the theory that a DLP tends to stress. There is enough time for academics in the months that they are slated to spend in college Post Sea. Unfortunately, unless the so called DLP training programmes are revised, this problem cannot be completely addressed; in any event, one cannot learn navigation or ROR through a correspondence course! Present DLP schedules require too much time to be spent on books and notes in air conditioned accommodation and not nearly enough time out in the salt air.

Poor onboard training: This, in my view, is a biggie, and I have been as guilty as anybody else while at sea here. Firstly, what senior officers often fail to appreciate is that general academic competence of trainees is often lower than they were, say, twenty years ago, simply because the people who do better academically do not come out to see anymore. Additionally, the trainee has been sent on board with just a smattering of knowledge after three months of a Pre Sea mish mash. He is just a shade better equipped than the fresh ‘direct entry cadet’ of yesterday, while shipboard systems have become infinitely more complex. Another huge drawback in the system of training on board is this: almost all of it is devoid of any explanation or teaching. Result? We are not passing on the core concepts of seamanship to the next generation on ships anymore.

The ‘do this’, ‘take a compass error’ and ‘what is that ship doing?’ style of training was perhaps more appropriate for a time when crews were homogenous, when senior cadets taught juniors the ropes or when officers had the tradition (and time too, but is that just an excuse today?) of passing on knowledge to the young. Alas, not anymore. Multinational officers and single cadet ships have ensured that the trainee is on his own at a stage of his career when he needs mentorship the most.

Poor officer motivation on board: Another biggie. For example, is an Indian officer motivated enough to teach a Filipino cadet? Will the Master or Chief Engineer take some time to devise an appropriate practical programme for a trainee? Will he identify officers competent and willing to teach these youngsters? Will training be conducted as part of a routine and a job that must be done well or will it inevitably fall by the wayside on the hectic ships of today? These critical questions must be answered, because they go right to the bone of the problem.

Fortunately, as I will detail in an article next week, there are solutions. All that is required is the usual (and rare) common sense and commitment. We at Differentship Management have devised an operational business model that is workable, sustainable and promotes excellence in MET. We will roll it out next week for your scrutiny.

Meanwhile, I request you all to desist from calling what generally passes for marine education and training as quality education. That rose should be called by another name: one that does not smell as sweet.