November 25, 2010

Wild optimism

I distrust third party management consulting reports. They are usually commissioned by organisations with hidden agendas, are indicative of the commissioning organisation’s inefficiency (do you really expect a bunch of young hotshot MBAs with little business experience to know more about your businesses than you do yourselves?), and, after the dust settles, will be put away in fancy bookcases to be taken out only when their fancy spines need to be periodically dusted. Occasionally, interested folk will selectively use some findings of these reports to push their own narrow points of view.

It is with some hesitation, therefore, that I quote McKinsey’s recent report that says that there are 1.1 million seafarers- officers and ratings- in the world today and that Indians constitute 6.3 percent (officers) and 7.5 percent (ratings) of this number. The Ministry of Shipping wants to increase Indian seafarer market share to 9 percent in five years; by this time, the demand for seafarers- both officers and ratings- is slated to touch 1.4 million. I must point out that the IMO’s statistics are different. Secretary-General Mr. Efthimios E. Mitropoulos referred in September to there being today “1.5 million seafarers in the world.” The difference between 1.1 and 1.5 million is pretty large: this lack of clarity is symptomatic of the confusion that generally reigns ashore with regard to anything to do with mariner affairs.

I assume, even with all those iffy statistics and assuming an equal number of Indian ratings and officers, that the percentage of Indian seamen stands at about 6.9 of the global workforce. So, using the figures above, I reckon that there are approximately anywhere between 75,000 and 100,000 active Indians mariners today. To put things in perspective and to perhaps indicate why seafarers remain divorced from public consciousness in the country, consider this: Just one Indian software company, Infosys, had, at the end of 2009, almost 110,000 employees- more than the total number of active Indians at sea.

We must be realistic: we can hardly expect, given these numbers, great public or political support for either seafarer or industry ‘causes’. It is equally presumptuous to assume that the criticality of the industry will dawn on the entire populace next Monday morning. In any case, there are two different issues here that need to be pushed: on one hand, broad industry commercial interests will need lobbyists and a proactive administration. Seafarer employment issues will have to be largely addressed in-house and within the industry.

Therein lies the rub.

We are not going to produce that additional 2% mariner number the Shipping Ministry targets by 2015-around 40,000 additional Indian mariners with the projected demand slated to grow 20%- by sitting on our hands. As things stand, we have no concerted plan that will get us within even spitting distance of such a number. We have no workable databases of existing seafarers, to begin with- but perhaps the INDOS one can be tweaked to reflect active seafarers. The industry does no research, besides making assumptions based on anecdote, of what will attract new talent; we don’t even know for sure what makes present seafarers tick. We do not even know how many of the present lot plan to sail for even the next contract with us- or anywhere else.

Come to think of it, we actually don’t know our seafarers very well, do we?

It is telling, in more ways than one, that whatever little research is being done on the much overused term- the ‘Human Element’- is being conducted in the West, whereas much of the mariner workforce comes from the East. This needs to change quickly: why can’t the Indian maritime industry do its own research and come up with its own ideas? Cultural and nationality based factors cannot be applied on a one size fits all basis- European HRD ideas, for example, often do not work too well in India. A pan Indian industry body funded by individual companies has a much better chance of success. It could research and promote the profession, disseminate best HRD practices, suggest initiatives for improvement in both the quantity and quality of fresh entrants and provide industry feedback and comment related to general seafarer calibre to training institutes.

It would provide Indian solutions that would, in all likelihood, make sense in the Indian market. (The first thing it would need to do, in my opinion, is to recommend to the industry that it stop using touts in manning or training and that it stops charging any ‘placement fee’ from any sailor, either officially or under the table.)

I am convinced that unless we-and I mean those in the industry in India- do much more in the human resources development space than just hire and fire (or, more likely, hire and hope), our ambitions of increasing Indian seafarer numbers will remain pipe dreams. Actually, our ability to maintain even present seafarer market share is a huge question mark in my mind- leave alone that overly ambitious 9 percent number.

Change will not come from the Government, mainly because seafarer numbers are small in India and so politicians can ignore us: I could house all those 75000 or so active mariners from across the country in one corner of a suburb of Mumbai and nobody would even notice.

Change, if we want it, has to come from within.


November 19, 2010

Out of the bag

Considering how much you have learnt from me, my cat told me yesterday, rubbing itself on the leg of my chair, I should own the intellectual property rights to the book. He was talking about a treatise on shipmanagement that I have been threatening to write for some time. The only thing that has held me back, so far, is that I am sure that nobody will read it.

But the cat, as usual, had a point. There is a lot sailors can learn from cats and their approach to life. There is also the fact that ‘Shipmanagement by a cat’ makes for a catchy rubric. Better than ‘Shipmanagement for (and by) Dummies', which was the original working title of the book.

One of the first feline lessons we learn is that curiosity does not kill the cat: quite the contrary. Watch a cat entering unfamiliar terrain for the first time. Cautious, treading softly. Whiskers sensing on full alert. Examining everything in minute detail. Crouched and silent until it has familiarised itself with everything around it. This is an excellent practice for a sailor to follow too- the habit of complete familiarisation with the ship as soon as possible. Certainly makes one a better professional, and can even save lives.

Even in familiar territory, a cat will usually and periodically take a quick glance at its surroundings, registering changes and possible threats, going from relaxed to full alert in one point eight seconds. What I call the cat scan. A lesson for our watchkeepers there, I think, and maybe our crews too.

Much larger than these practical disciplines are the soft skills that cats intuitively display- their emotional intelligence could teach us a thing or two when it comes to dealing with others aboard and ashore. Forget the Human Element- it is the Cat Element that rocks.

For example, cat wisdom says we should talk only when we have something important to say: no pointless barking for the cat. It mews when it wants something, or wants to indicate something. The rest of the time, it leaves communication to one’s imagination. Particular lesson at sea today, I think, with much unnecessary communication, both aboard and from shore to ship, that detracts and distracts us from the basics.

Live with dignity. No running around with tail wagging and tongue hanging out like a dog. Cats live in a businesslike environment, treating each incident on its own merit and each person with the respect that they deserve; so should we. Nobody owns the cat; nobody should own the sailor.

Have no favourites. A dog has a master; a cat prefers nobody in particular. It will sit and purr in one lap today and in another the next. It gets along with everybody, and invites everybody to get along with it. Wish I could do the same.

Always land on your feet. Useful mental ability, what with the particular pressures sailors face at sea- and ashore- today.

Be a partner, not a slave. Unlike a dog, a cat cannot be taught to do anything on instruction- unless you are one of those Hollywood pet trainers, I guess. Otherwise, it will work with you, not for you. Good pointer to effective crew-management relationships.

Be poker faced. Keep them guessing. I swear I do not know, looking at the cat, whether it is going to purr or attack in the next instant; the expression gives nothing away. Useful for senior officers when dealing with problematic crew and managers, I think. And vice versa.

Relax whenever you can. Watching a dozing puss is a complete lesson in instant relaxation techniques. Just looking at a cat stretching lowers blood pressure. Fatigued seafarers note: a catnap is a wonderful thing. Corollary: Taking time off for yourself increases output and decreases the chances of a coronary.

Treat irritants with disdain. A cat walks away with obvious contempt when peeved. To deal with the cat, one has to factor in the possibility that it will just disengage if pushed beyond a point. I daresay we would have fewer retention issues if shipmanagers understood this lesson well.

If you play with a cat, expect to be scratched. If you go out to sea, expect what comes along with it- the tough life, the hazards and the annoyances included. Take the bad with the good.

Useful lessons for sure. But, much more than all this, the defining classroom that my cat conducted for me was held a few years ago, when a kitten walked into our home and adopted us. After the initial flurry of vet visits and shots were done with, my daughter dragged us to a pet shop where I bought, amongst other things and with scant knowledge of any animal except a pet dog, squeaky toys shaped like mice, rattles more expensive than we had bought for our children, yellow table tennis and tennis balls that were guaranteed to keep the cat gamboling cutely for hours on end, and an assortment of similar artifacts. My wife even produced a ball of wool from a ten-year-old shopping bag at home. Kittens are famous for unraveling and raveling this, usually accompanied by oohs and aahs of human delight, right?

The kitten investigated all the goodies thoroughly, then ignored all of them and spent an hour and a half playing with an empty plastic bag on the floor. The lesson, I thought immediately, was that things are not important. What you want to do is.

It was much later, though, that the incident triggered in me what I discovered was the deeper lesson- and the most basic one of all.

Slow down, the kitten was telling me. Forget money for a while. Forget the one-more-contract syndrome. Forget even that commercial shore job that you are half-heartedly chasing, because you know, with previous experience, that it will kill your soul. Find your own game to play and enjoy. Make your own rules.

Slow down, it was telling me. The first rule of the game of life is this, that whoever dies with the most toys does not win.


November 11, 2010

Calculated mistake.

My calculator and I are confused again.

For most of my working life I have been told, by the cabal sitting ashore, that crew costs are rising unsustainably and that we Indian sailors are- to use a favourite banality- ‘pricing ourselves out of the market’. So you can imagine my surprise when I read of a Lloyd’s List article that said that, since 2003, when the the International Bargaining Forum began, ”the costs of the 23-man model ship used as the basis for negotiations have increased from USD 42,794 a month to USD 54,850, a rise of 28%”. Coincidentally, another report I ran into, this time by Moore Stephens, says that total ship operating costs fell between 2% and 8% in 2009 after 7 years of rise, although they are expected to be marginally higher this year. The nine year average rise is between 6 and 7 percent.

My calculator and I work out that a 28% increase in crew costs over 7 years translates to a compounded annual rate of a little above three percent. That, in reality, is a number much closer to the wage hike that we seafarers have been given over time, and is hardly the earthshaking rise that my colleagues in management have been whining about. I also know that the US dollar that a sailor is normally being paid with is dropping against the Rupee, and that a low level grunt working for a software company in India will often wrinkle his nose at the 15 percent annual increment he is almost guaranteed, barring the odd year or two. True, ’crew costs’ may include repatriation, insurance and other such expenses and is therefore not an absolute indicator of wages, but I believe that my calculator is close enough. And, as we know from experience, years may pass, in our market consumed by supply and demand, with no increase in wages at all- or even a dollar decrease. If that were to happen today, a seafarer will be doubly hit, because the dollar isn’t what it used to be and the rupee is stronger.

You will excuse me for wondering if I, a Master since 1991, whose ambit of responsibility at sea cannot even begin to be compared with that software grunt’s, should be getting an annual increment just a fourth of that guys. If, on the other hand, I am a fresh faced 18 year old, I will likely question the business model of an industry that jumps up and down wailing about wages- of contracted workers, at that- in panic with doomsday scenarios built in, when all it offers is a 3 percent os so increment annually over time.

Obviously you will tell me shipping is not software. It is a different industry, capital intensive and cyclical and so the two cannot be compared. Fair enough, but what you are really telling me- whether I am me or that 18 year old- is that working at sea is not all that great financially. That i am better off elsewhere. In which case the business model is up in the air- or down the tube- once again. These objections, even when I compare shipping with, say, the aviation industry, actually tell that youngster that we acknowledge those industries as superior, and trust on either goodwill or subterfuge to get him to choose shipping as a career instead. As is obvious with the numbers and the quality of new entrants seen today at sea, this sleight of hand does not work anymore. Neither does it make shipping a career of choice, with due emphasis on the last two words.

Popular thinking- the cabal’s and the seaman’s- is that shipping is tough but the money is good. I am afraid that is no longer true for India. Sure, the money is good if, as that 18 year old Class 12 graduate, your folks cannot afford good higher education for you. The money is good if you are terribly below par and so really cannot make good anywhere else, now or in the future. However, looking purely from an earnings perspective, sailing today is a financial dead end If either of these caveats do not apply to you.

For example, the chances of a well educated youngster earning a seagoing Master’s (or at least a Chief Officer’s) wages ashore within a decade or so are quite high in many other industries in India if he or she is any good. This possibility becomes actually very likely if you factor in future exchange rates and the wage-increase disparity I have spoken of. And, given that working lifespans are longer ashore, the decision to ignore a career at sea, with all the additional handicaps thrown in, becomes almost a no-brainer. Sure, the salary ashore will be before tax, but then again, tax rates for resident Indians are being relaxed with slabs raised annually- while those for NRIs and seamen working abroad are being tightened. The tide is turning against the mariner here too.

As somebody who has loved the life the sea has given me, I take no pleasure in propogating my arguments in this piece- in my opinion, these point to an approaching tragedy. Also because I see few youngsters with love for the sea life today, a passion that made going out to sea as- and sometimes even more- interesting as the money. Unfortunately, shipping today has a huge problem if it cannot even prove to its sailors that future financial rewards are worth the risk and hardship that they are being asked to undertake.

We are getting second-rate new talent. And what is even worse, this is not the career of choice for the second-raters either. Many of us still say, somewhat derisively, that rocket scientists are not required at sea. This statement may be true, but it obfuscates the fact that what is indeed required of new talent- motivation and commitment, for a start- is usually missing or is at levels that are abysmal.

As for the old canard about Indian sailors pricing themselves out of the market, it lies nakedly exposed before us. Indian mariners may well dwindle in numbers in future, but that won’t be because they have priced themselves out of the market. It will more likely be due to reasons outlined here or the growing realisation amongst owners that higher salaries are not justified given the dropping calibre of officers. The industry would do better addressing those issues instead of continuing to waste energy on its old fictions.


November 04, 2010

Citadels in the sand

I have long resisted commenting on the citadel strategy that is being flouted as the second coming by the best piracy management practices folks and their accomplices. Briefly, this Plan A involves the crew locking themselves up in a strong room on the ship when boarded by pirates- often the steering gear compartment- after tripping the engines and generators. The cavalry from the coalition navies comes in to rescue them as the frustrated bad people flee the dead ship facing capture or death in a firefight.

There is no Plan B.

I comment now because I fear that more seamen will soon be killed by what I consider is a foolish strategy. (A seaman or two has already died when boarders fired through a door- presumably not a steel one- in one incident.) For it is just a matter of time before the pirates figure out a speedy tactic to breach the shaky bastion that the crew have fled to. Time is indeed critical, because the pirates win if they can get to the crew before the naval forces get to them. I would, in their place, be running drills with plastic explosives to see how quickly a watertight door or similar can be blown off the hinges. (Let me tell you, after witnessing an accident on a ship where a battery exploded in a confined airless room at sea, that the door blows off quite easily.)

What then, if the strong room is breached? Will the pirates, who have shown remarkable adaptability so far, make a decision to execute one or two of the crew to deter other ships from the citadel approach? How soon before an explosion kills somebody? What happens if they decide to chuck a few grenades into the engine room before they leave, or start a fire outside the citadel? What happens when an unarmed and untrained crew face khat-chewing desperados with Kalashnikovs now made more irate and frustrated? What happened to the ‘no-resistance if pirates board’ recommendation that has been long advised- what I call the ‘if rape is inevitable’ response? Will the best management people take responsibility for the consequences when somebody is killed?

Pigs will fly long before that happens.

The fact is that Somali piracy was a headline a year or two ago; by now it is hardly news anymore. As with reports of violence from Iraq or Afghanistan, another hijack does not titillate the global citizen or the media; it may even elicit a yawn instead. The fact is, also, that the best management folks and their spin-doctors are underplaying and underreporting the menace while simultaneously exaggerating the few successes; as an example, Ecoterra’s reports indicate to me that many near trade, fishing and such vessels hijacked off Somalia are just not reported in the official figures. This fudging of figures, this tom-tomming of the success of the ‘Citadel Strategy’- a term probably floated by a bright eyed media advisor and which conjures up images of a fortress instead of an asphyxiating steering gear compartment that is the reality- is all part of this creative endeavour. Pirate attacks have increased and are more widespread, and now include incidents in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea alarmingly close to the Indian mainland. They have also moved south.

Meanwhile, the EU squabbles over proposals to float private navies to combat the Somali pirates. Resistance to the idea of armed guards on ships continues, although some owners are certainly using mercenaries aboard their fleets. Wary as I am of the trigger-happy Blackwater types, I cannot see many options to a problem I am convinced will stay with us for many years, especially since we do precious little to solve it. The criminal neglect of the entire issue of piracy by the industry continues. The breathtaking tragedy is that the strategies and tactics that will probably work are not being exercised or even seriously contemplated.

Here are some that should.

First, armed guards. The canard about how this will escalate violence is nonsense, given the scale and violence of the Somali attacks. Armed guards will be an excellent deterrent, in my opinion. The pirates are not a couple of guys with knives coming to steal your ropes and paint; they are already armed to the teeth, and they intend to take the whole ship away. They have, in the past, killed or wounded seafarers and at least threatened rape. They have beaten, starved and ill-treated hostages for months. The violence has already escalated long ago, and to use this excuse is rubbish. Using the same reasoning, not a single weapon should be carried by security at international airports.

Consider this: what are the best management folk recommending right now? Lock yourself in the panic room and await armed men who will rescue you, right? How is having armed guards on board much different to this? Besides, using the same citadel reasoning, if armed men on board can hold off pirates for the same amount of time that the crew plans to spend in the steering flat, the navies can still come to the rescue, right? Then why is everybody, including the IMO and other industry organisations, stubbornly resisting this? Are there other reasons? Does the plot, monsieur, thicken?

Second, ships changing routes. Not going to happen and we all know why.

Third, a mechanism for prosecution of arrested pirates, which is a bad joke thus far. Surely, we could have come up with a workable law after years of escalating piracy. As things stand, the international legal response to piracy is pathetic.

Fourth, a naval blockade of Somalia. Will take a huge amount of resources, but, as luck would have it, is being recommended by the African Union too, albeit for other reasons. The AU wants an air and naval blockade of Somalia to stop arms getting into rebel Al Shabaab hands. Ramtane Lamamra, the AU peace and security commissioner, told the UN Security Council less than two weeks ago that "The African Union is very concerned that the insecurity in Somalia is spilling over into the region.” Asking the naval forces that are fighting piracy in the region to provide more tangible and operational support to the Union’s AMISOM soldiers that prop up the Somali government, such as it is, Lamamra wants a naval blockade and a no-fly zone over Somalia “to prevent the entry of foreign fighters in Somalia as well as flights carrying shipments of weapons and ammunition to armed groups in Somalia." The Somali Foreign Minister echoed the blockade call, saying that his country was “in a dire situation”.

Shipping needs to throw its uncertain weight behind this blockade demand, because a blockade will greatly and coincidentally strengthen the fight against piracy. The best way of stopping piracy is to stop the criminals a few miles off their friendly neighbourhood beach, not in the vast ocean. Let their villages become pirate citadels; let a blockade ensure this.

The problem is that the best management folks are managing the situation instead of fighting it. Their strategies look impressive in boardrooms and conference halls; they look very shaky at the front line. The problem is, also, that we have ceded the seas to the pirates, concentrating instead on coastal security and maritime security ‘corridors’ that are failing. After another attack close to the Indian coast, this time on a VLCC just 350 miles from Mangalore, India is failing, too.

The citadel strategy, like much of the global response to piracy, is akin to children making a sandcastle on the beach in a rising tide, calling it a citadel, and then sticking their heads in it.

And then hoping like hell that they will not drown.