July 21, 2011

An indecent proposal

Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that the devaluation of Indian officers is already happening. Shipowners are becoming increasingly cagey about paying a premium for officers that have questionable calibre, lower academic ability or understanding, poor language or communication skills and thin commitment to both the job and the organisation. That this circumspection extends to trainees is obvious and well known, which is way the majority of navigation or engineering cadets graduating from maritime training institutes- both private and government- find it close to impossible to find training berths without paying off somebody or the other.

I am not talking about the many shipmanagement companies that have opened training establishments here. Those will hopefully whet their intakes, train in line with their clients' requirements and absorb all graduates. If not cradle to grave, these companies will be looking to retain these trainees for the first six or seven years of their careers at least, or close to it; I am sure some spreadsheets have been made that tell us exactly under what conditions the exercise becomes worthwhile.

However, the trainees that graduate out of other training institutes face heavy odds stacked against them. They struggle to get 'placed' on board, often having to pay up to 2 lakhs - including in some well known shipmanagement or ownership companies to corrupt employees- for the privilege of getting their year or two of sea time. Many are sent on substandard vessels where they are at greater risk of injury or worse. Many of these substandard ships have substandard officers or crews, who are incapable, unwilling or too overworked to teach cadets anything worthwhile. These trainees will rarely make good officers. This vicious cycle will continue unless broken.

Nothing is being done to stem this rot, even though everybody knows the system sucks big time. Meanwhile, bureaucrats and ministers plan to increase global Indian officer market share by fifty percent or so in the next few years: unfortunately for them and for the rest of the industry, officer numbers cannot be increased by commissioned reports or by edict alone. They will have to do something substantial to maintain just the present market share. They will have to fight pressures from within their own organisations that have allowed many training setups to get away with murder ever since the STCW95 circus put up its tents.

What needs to be done is mainly commonsense, and should be well known to all the smart folk in the industry. Here, then, is my take:

Strategically, look after quality of product. Forget the numbers. If we can produce once again, like we did thirty and more years ago, good officers that meet- even exceed- industry requirements, then the numbers will automatically follow. Seafaring- Safe Manning Certificates notwithstanding- is not a numbers game. This is a no-brainer: most shipowners have always paid a premium for higher quality seafarers. Most have not hesitated to employ from countries that have demonstrated that they can produce quality. India was one of these countries for many years; it is my contention that it has now slipped to a point where it has started to be shunned today. The only way to reverse this trend is to, once gain, make quality the differentiating factor between Indian officers and the competition.

But strategy is easy; we need to have people with vision to execute tactically. Tactics- and the will to do what is needed to be done- is key. Unfortunately, what needs to be done will be very unpopular in many quarters. So be it.

Here, in my considered opinion, is what we need to do.

1. 'Placement fee'- or any money paid to any individual or organisation for training berths- to be made illegal. This should be rigorously enforced.

2. Whether for Indian or Foreign certification programmes being run in India, only cadets who are sponsored by approved (DGS to draw up a list) ship manning or shipowner firms to be eligible for Pre-Sea training. Training institutes to be barred from taking cadets without written sponsorship. Sponsorship does not mean, here, that the company should pay for cadet training, although it may choose to do so; sponsorship to mean a written commitment that the cadet, on satisfactory graduation, will be placed on one of the sponsor's ships.

3. Institutes to be penalised, including by withdrawal of DGS approval, if found using or promoting touts or using corrupt or unfair practices.

4. Foreign and domestic firms to be pressured- on threat of withdrawal of DGS approvals or others-to give a specified number of cadets training berths on their ships. Existing regulations to be enforced. These firms to be barred from outsourcing the placement to any third party. Problems with this, e.g. lack of on-board accommodation, to be a matter between the shipmanagement and the shipowner. Maybe the management companies can persuade other owners in their fleet, who do not have these problems, from providing berths.

5. No remission of sea time for Distance Learning Programmes, because they do little to improve practical knowledge and contribute instead to a drop in quality of product. Instead, the cadet could, in the final year, be granted a stipend/wage equivalent to what the lowest rating on board draws. Indian flag ships to be allowed to employ one such cadet in lieu of a crewmember. Other Flag States to be persuaded, with or without the IMO.

6. The Indian certificate of competency should not be devalued by making examinations any simpler or easier.

7. Ways to be found- without degrading the examinations- to make it easier for Indian Ratings to appear for competency examinations in India. It is a disgrace that they have to go to other countries to appear for such examinations today.

8. Responsibility of the DGS should be changed. Course syllabus, logistics and equipment requirements for cadet courses to become a matter between training institutes and companies that send sponsored cadets to them- obviously no company will send their cadets to any institute that does not provide proper infrastructure. Instead, the DGS to monitor broad parameters with regard to cadet training: Only sponsored trainees. Also to ensure no touts. No placement fee. No institute lying in advertisements, promising '100% placement'. In short, the DGS should engage more in ensuring that that the strategy is being executed while leaving the relatively minor tactics to the marketplace.

9. Finally, while the DGS is at it, useless STCW add-on courses should be discarded, if possible, or drastically improved, if not.

I am sure that one lobby that will vehemently object to my proposal will be the training lobby. I do realise that they have a point: they have spent a lot of money setting up institutes and buying equipment, and here I am proposing to curb their intake. How, they will ask, will they survive?

The answers are not easy, but this is what I would say to them. Folks, I would say, the industry does not want- or need- to take in cadets on the back of lies, deceit, fraud or subterfuge anymore. It does not want often substandard Pre-Sea training that ends up in no jobs- or, worse, third rate or unsafe ones. It does not need, as will happen sooner or later, hundreds of unemployed and untrained cadets going to the media claiming fraud, because then the axe will surely fall on you, laying all your investments to waste anyway. The game will be over.

Folks, the writing is on the wall. How long do you think the present circus- or gravy train- will go on anyway? Until a time when not a single cadet enrols at your institute? Or when the axe suddenly falls? Or until a couple of major ship manning companies shut shop and walk away from India because of poor quality of officers? You will have no choice then, anyway.

My proposed way is better, for it gives you the opportunity to engage with the regulators and the industry today and make the transition relatively painless. You have the time to explain to the regulators and the industry what they already know: that you are in business to make a reasonable profit. Maybe they will be inclined to ease things for you wherever possible today. If you ignore this course and the axe falls in future, no such dialogue will be possible.

You have also the opportunity to cast aside old habits of greed and modify strategies that assumed endless cadet intakes- that will not happen for long anyway. You have the opportunity to negotiate with the regulators and the industry on almost everything except, if I have my say, the broad strategy, although I am sure many of you will suggest better, more workable, tactics.

The pain can be managed and reduced after negotiation. The only thing non-negotiable, in all this, should be the pursuit of excellence in training, whether it is ashore or afloat.


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