September 03, 2010

Structured mess

Honestly, given a choice, I would not have employed about half the navigating officers that I was forced to sail with in recent times. Not that all were lousy, but too many were just not good enough. And, although I can well understand the imperative that requires that we put warm certified bodies on ships as fast as we can find them, I cannot understand why the maritime education juggernaut in India is in such a mess, and why precious little is being done about it.

It also appears to me that earlier generations of Indian mariners bulldozed their way into foreign flags because they were better trained and available at a time when demand was picking up. Much of the present lot, it seems to me, are employed only because shipowners seem to have fewer options today.

Ignore the officer shortage numbers for a bit; ignore, too, the separate problem of the decreasing attractiveness of a sea career. It is a separate problem, you know, even though some will correctly say that the calibre of the finished product is a function of the calibre of the entrant. My sense is, however, that we fail to train satisfactorily the youngsters that we do manage to attract- and these numbers are still substantial, if one looks at numbers for Cadet programme intakes in both Indian and foreign courses. Nonetheless, there is a cascading downward spiral of standards in training across the board, and that fact, coupled with the calibre of the entrant, adds up to an assembly line production of substandard officers.

There are huge structural problems, to be sure. Optimists may have thought that the formation of the IMU would address some of these, but the cynics amongst us seem to be winning that argument handsomely so far, even after the uneasy resolution of the spat that went to court in Chennai (Said spat now superseded by allegations of questionable practices by the IMU). Many in the industry are, in addition, concerned about issues of transparency and delivery of training across the Indian Maritime Education business, not to speak of the fact that a lot of old wine seems to have been funnelled into new bottles without a thought towards any improvement in training quality. The result is that the system is embarrassed by hundreds of crores being earmarked by the Government and the private sector for MET infrastructure without any corresponding commitment towards the quality of the finished product. Fund allocation is easy, and so are air conditioners and simulators. However, education, as much else in life, is about people: those that train and those that are trained.

The Ministry of Shipping needs to urgently look at its own backyard first and make up its mind if it is serious about its grandiose plans of raising the much-touted 7 percent number (the Indian global seafarer workforce percentage) triple fold in short time. Quite honestly, it doesn’t even have the beginning of a strategy that will do this. Equally bluntly, we do not have a clean system that will allow the brave and honest to succeed in anything except banging their heads against a brick wall.

The MoS needs to also review its approval programme for private training institutes and factor in independent third party audits. Quality of education audits, not the ISO audits of today that concentrate on documentation and largely ignore delivery of training (reminding me somewhat of shipboard ISM audits, all sound and fury often signifying nothing). Frankly, too many MET institutes are being run by proprietors with no clue about shipping or any commitment to it; the closest they probably get to a ship is when they gaze at the photo-shopped photographs of vessels on their websites. Too many of these employ no one from the merchant navy to teach on a permanent basis. Of those that do, too many of those that teach do so without passion or even interest. Small wonder that the quality of their graduates are making owners question the competency levels of Indian seafarers, or whether they actually deserve the salary premium that Indians have enjoyed so far compared to other nationalities.

The DGS needs to look beyond the ‘DG approved’ tag that many of these institutes hide their incompetence behind; therefore my suggestion for a corruption free third party audit mechanism. Frankly, I am appalled and disheartened by the attitudes of management at some at these institutes. A Government of India approval is hardly any guarantee of quality in any other educational field; often quite the opposite. To expect different in the MET business is wildly optimistic.

Then, there are too many people enrolling in foreign Deck Cadet programmes. They do so because they are ineligible for the Indian ones that have higher academic eligibility requirements (some foreign courses even take Commerce students!). Nevertheless, this does not make sense: these programmes are far more expensive long term, because the Cadet will have to go repeatedly to a foreign country for college and examinations for certification. I don’t know how these youngsters will quit sailing within a decade, as many plan to do: they will have hardly any money saved, what with high expenses of international travel, living abroad for months at a time and college fees. (Somebody should tell them that the colour of their skin will likely determine wages anyway, not the colour of their competency certificate.)

We need to enroll these youngsters in Indian programmes instead. What I would do is this: devise a longer- and special- Pre Sea programme for aspiring cadets who do not meet the more stringent academic requirements today. Address typical shortcomings that they have in Mathematics and some of the Sciences in this programme. Let them go out to sea only after reaching the required higher standards. They will be interested in such a syllabus because by not having to go abroad for certification they save lakhs of rupees.

Why don’t we do this? Disinterest, is why. Quite easily changed. Also easy is making it simpler for Indian ratings, particularly engine ratings, to appear for competency exams in India. For the life of me, I cannot see why we are sitting on our hands here when other countries are encouraging Indian ratings to come to them for officer certification.

Finally, it needs to be mandated to every shipping company operating Indian registered ships and those recruiting officers out of India that training berths are a pre-requisite for being allowed to do so. There is a law of sorts in effect, but it does not cover everybody and seems to be followed more in the breach. Like in much else to do with the MET business, implementation is substandard here too.

Therefore, my four step MET strategy for India: Clean up the government and private act. Put in place tough educational delivery audits. Discourage foreign programmes. Provide training berths. For the job is largely done if we take in the best people we can get, train them well and get them safe trainee positions at the end of the exercise. They will then be supremely placed to compete in the marketplace. They will, as those before them did, shine.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, there was a patronising air in the room that suggested that I was being naive the last time I mentioned this plan to a group of my peers. My friends were probably stuck at Step 1: Cleaning up the act is something we want to do only as long as we are asking somebody else to clean up theirs.

My belief is, however, that in the absence of this first step- a clean system- the Indian MET setup is heading for that special junkyard in oblivion reserved for the second-rate.


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