October 31, 2009

The seven-year itch.

I subscribe to a group on the internet, one that I visit once a fortnight or so. Most of its members are merchant naval officers from India. Many are very senior and experienced, both at sea and ashore.

A youngster joined the group recently with some questions: he had an offer in hand to join an Indian company for his initial apprenticeship and sought informed advice on, amongst other things, what he could do ashore after about seven year's experience at sea. He obviously wanted to quit sailing after around that time and enquired about his career prospects at that stage, either in shipping or in another industry that had potential. He asked which other industries would be relevant, given his assumed experience.

The reactions, with a few notable exceptions, crystallised for me the main reason why we fail to attract the young to a career at sea today: this is because many of us are almost delusionally out of touch with reality.

The youngster (who remained polite throughout in the thread, to his credit) was ridiculed and the sorry state of the industry was put firmly at the doorstep of his (and such) attitudes. He was advised to, alternately, take the apprenticeship offer immediately and stay away from shipping because, by implication, people like him would not be able to cut it. He was mocked for signing up with a moniker that was not his real name. Many replies were sarcastic and others were condescending. Exasperated terms like 'spoon feeding' and 'here we go again' were used. Except for a small handful of members who tried to bring some reality into the proceedings and one or two who even offered to meet the guy to help him out with his questions, other senior Masters and Chief Engineers on the forum seemed to be on the usual nostalgic ego trips, alternately bemoaning the fate of the industry and the commitment of the young today.

Almost nobody answered his questions in a systematic or mature manner. Nobody listed the pros and cons of his suggested course of action or gave him advice on later career alternatives, which is what he had requested. The youngster wanted information; instead, he got derision. In his place, I would have gone away with the impression that the merchant navy was staffed by unhelpful and cantankerous fuddy duddies. I would have carried this impression to my friends. Maybe I would have abandoned any plans of joining shipping at all.

Times have changed, gentlemen. The prospective new recruit is looking far beyond what we looked at when we were his age. He is examining options and determining exit strategies. He wants to make some money and quit for greener and otherwise more satisfying pastures before he is thirty, or as soon as possible thereafter. He has a lot more information at his fingertips, much of which is inaccurate or otherwise lopsided because it does not come from sailors like us: however, by giving him the reception we did, we blew our chances of correcting the imbalance. We did not give him what he was looking for: an informed opinion. He will go elsewhere and get uninformed opinions instead: we know how distorted those are likely to be.

The problem is bigger than the feelings, or the fate, of just one prospect. The posture that this industry is doing a favour to any new entrant remains a universal one in Indian shipping circles and is a huge reason why we cannot attract suitable talent anymore. This same attitude was faced by us when we came out to sea as sparkling new Cadets many moons ago; the sparkle has gone long ago, but the attitude remains like fading memory. Unfortunately, the world has moved on since those times that look, as usual, rosy in retrospect.

Other industries visit campuses to identify and lock in to promising talent; we hang a shingle and wait for talent to walk in through the door. Other businesses spend time and money trying to recruit and retain their present and potential workforce; we retire with a gin and tonic and berate the young who ask questions. Other industry projects manpower requirements into the future; we work on supply and demand decisions made by the seat of our pants when they are on fire. Other sectors rate their chances of growth impossible without robust HRD departments; our HRD departments are a joke and a byproduct. As if excellence can be achieved by chance.

I say this: If this generation desires to have a shortish seven or ten year stint at sea and shift out, let us make it easier for them to do so. Let us modify our moribund gasping for air policies to better suit the requirements of present day talent. Let’s face it, if they want to leave in seven years they will do so anyway; if we do not offer them an attractive option we will lose them for good to other industry. Let us retain this talent within the industry at the end of their sailing lifespan with well thought out career paths; as things stand today, and with the kind of treatment and respect we give seafarers, they will leave in disgust and to escape, and we will be left with the dregs, not the best and the brightest.

As for old cantankerous and stagnant attitudes, it is not as if these really worked even thirty years ago: the abysmal growth of the Indian shipping industry during this time cannot be all blamed on unsupportive Government policies. Some of the blame lies at our doorsteps, too; we did not attract the right people and we did not retain them long enough.

We can't seem to attract the requisite people in the requisite numbers even today, and we certainly can't, in future, run our ships with people who are unemployable everywhere else. Not at a time when the engine control room and the navigating bridge are getting more complex by the day. Regrettably, I have no doubt that if we continue with present attitudes it will soon come to that.

Gentlemen, the world has changed. Deal with it.