February 01, 2010

The Differentship Road Show

Regular sufferers of this column will know that Differentship exists only in my mind and is not real. But as Morpheus says in ‘The Matrix: “If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain”.

We at Differentship Shipmanagement will roll out, starting next week, an ambitious programme that will target the best and brightest in schools and colleges in selected cities across the country; these bright youngsters will be encouraged to join us as deck and engineering cadets. We will start at Class XII level now and later go on to make presentations at the beginning of each academic year to Classes X, XI and XII. The schools or colleges we choose will be amongst the top ten in each major city; we will then move on to smaller cities and towns as our fleet expands.

Some things we are (obtusely, to many in the industry) fixated on:

We will be truthful about the pitfalls and benefits of a merchant naval career at every stage; we do not believe in luring people with falsehoods; in any case, we believe that this career has enough going for it to be a worthwhile choice for many.

We always target excellence and so it will be here too. There is no use in large numbers if individual calibre is poor.

One of our Masters or Chief Engineers who are ashore or afloat will make each presentation at each institution. The only other requirement we have is that they will be excellent speakers and they answer any questions after each presentation truthfully and usefully.

We will leave a phone number and email id at every school in case further information on shipping is sought. Additionally, we will, as far as possible, nominate sailing officers on leave and in rotation to respond locally and revisit schools if necessary.

We are keen to amalgamate best practices from the industry into our programme, and, indeed, to help other shipmanagement companies set up similar programmes if they so desire; we strongly believe that making the industry more attractive to the right people is beneficial to us all, and so all of us will complement each other instead of being uselessly adversarial. (In this connection, we are not interested in seeking best poaching practices from others!)

What follows is a draft, almost completed, of our initial address at each educational institution. We now make it public for two reasons: one, we seek feedback from the industry to improve this. Two, we offer this plan to anybody in the industry who feels it may be useful for them, as we believe it will be for us.

Here is the opening address that will be made at each school. (The anecdotal part of the address will obviously vary, depending on the speaker). Brochures will be distributed beforehand. In the backdrop of the hall will be a photographic or video show running, with different ships, crews performing diverse operations, life at sea, ports, a vessel’s interiors in detail, machinery and deck spaces, navigation and the bridge depicted.... I am sure you get the drift. (We may even have the hackneyed photograph of a four striped, blazered and sextant armed Captain shooting the stars on a bridge wing!)

This is what the opening address will essentially say:

“Hello, and welcome to the Differentship road show. We are here not just to sell our company but also to present a career option to you. At the end of this presentation, we will answer any questions you have: in any case, we have given you some brochures and will be leaving literature with you that will tell you more about the modalities of becoming an officer at sea, besides directing you to some very useful websites and other reading material. We will also leave a phone number and email id where you can contact us to get more information later. Our intention is to leave you in a position where you can make an informed choice of career”.

“Ships carry well over 90 percent of all goods on earth, and so there are many kinds of ships. A merchant naval officer is qualified to sail on any of them, subject to additional qualifications that are not huge. His professional training starts after Class 12: the first two and a half years or so is an apprenticeship period ending in examinations, after which he is a certified officer. We have, in the information on modalities on how to become a marine officer in our brouchers given to you already, numbers on initial stipends and officer salaries. These, as you can see, are excellent and in many cases tax free, which means that you can add at least 25 percent to the figures to compare them with wages ashore in India.”

“Life at sea is mentally and physically tough; many of you probably have an idea of this already. You work long and hard hours and are away from your family (though when you return you can be with them for a few months on leave) , you often still don’t have easy access to email on board and phone calls are expensive, although this is changing and is enormously better than the time I went out to sea around your age. These are the major negatives; there are others too, as there are in any profession on earth: here, ship’s officers are being blamed by too many countries for too many things and there are pirate attacks off Somalia that you have read about. These are problems, sure, but not insurmountable ones: for example, Somali attacks have been around since the early 90’s, and I have sailed for more than fifteen years after that, often through those waters without being attacked even once. In fact, I spent, a few years ago, four months on one ship mainly in those waters almost everyday!”

“Now for the positives. For a start, it is an excellent career for people who enjoy thrill and have a lust for adventure. Then, salaries are very good and will probably get better as a major officer shortage is predicted. Keep in mind that not very much money has to been spent on the basic training itself, which is the case in most professional and similarly high paying professions ashore these days. Those of you who do not want to burden your parents with tens of lakhs in fees at those institutions will find the merchant navy particularly attractive. And food, lodging and medical treatment is free when you are working!”

“Then, one is ashore for long periods of time. This makes up, to an extent, for the fact that life on board is strenuous for about six months at a time for an officer. Keep in mind, though, that these ‘contract periods’ are generally becoming shorter anyway, and more so for senior officers. Take my example: I have not sailed for more than four months at a time since 1989, taking almost equal time off!”

“’Join the navy and see the world for free!’, is an apt expression, even though going ashore is not as easy and stay in port is not as long as when I was a Cadet. Even so, you will travel to many interesting places across the world and get time off in many of them. The advantage this gives to you in terms of experience, a broadening of your opinions and the ability to manage different kinds of people and situations is enormous, and will help you tremendously whenever you plan to move to a job ashore. Also, when you get married your families can sail with you!”

“Another advantage: you do not have to be a part of the rat race that so many jobs are ashore. You can pace your working life, taking time off as you want. Even on a daily basis, the nine to five (increasingly eight to eight) grind will not be yours. This has other pluses. As my brother in law told me once in Mumbai: ‘When I go to work my young son is sleeping. When I return he is sleeping. At least you are home when on leave.” That I had the time (and money) to make a two month long road holiday across India soon thereafter is another thing that I could have never done if I were working ashore.

“At sea, as you rise up in rank you will manage more and more complicated and computerised machinery and complex operations, and you will manage them with just a handful of people. In not many civilian occupations are the lives of twenty odd people and millions of dollars worth of enterprise in the hands of a twenty one year old officer or even a thirty year old Captain or Chief Engineer. The sense of achievement this will give you will be huge. To me, this has been one of the biggest pluses; this career pushes you to your limits, rewards you handsomely and gives you the confidence to thrive in the face of any challenge that is thrown at you, at sea or ashore. I have also worked successfully in the IT industry for a couple of years. One boss was impressed enough to remark ‘We should employ all merchant navy people!’”

“As I look back at my time at sea, I can tell you that it was tough work, but I revelled in the challenges. I was away from my family a lot, but I provided decently for them- and they sailed for years with me. I missed many birthdays and anniversaries, but so does an army man or even an executive these days. I was cut off from much of civilisation, but I made up for some of it on long breaks. People had misconceptions that sailing was for dumb people, but I knew better: their mistakes at work would cost money; mine could cost lives. My wages were good; I got sea breeze in my face at work and I was doing something more worthwhile than shuffling paper in some office. I had, overall, a good thing going. So can you.”

“Now, an announcement: Differentship will award full scholarships for Cadets to upto six students from this class. Selection criteria will be tough, but at the end of it, the winners will be required to spend absolutely nothing on their pre sea or post sea training on board our ships; in fact, we will give them, instead, a four hundred dollar stipend every month at sea during training. Their only expenses before they become officers will be college and exam fees leading to their Certificates of Competency; some of this money can be saved from their stipends.”

“My colleagues and I will now answer any questions you may have. Once again, I ask you to consider the merchant navy as a career seriously; it is a good career choice. Discard it if you must, but you owe it to yourself to give it a good thought. Thank you for listening.

For regular sufferers of this column who have come this far, an afterthought: If the answers we get when we interrogate the calibre of our officers are substandard, then perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.