August 23, 2012

Crying wolf

Funny things are happening out there. For some reason, marine officer shortage stories have started circulating once again. No numbers are being pulled out of the hat so far, except tentatively- unlike the rubbish we heard up to two or three years ago- but the game is afoot again. You know, the old one where the shipping industry slyly cries wolf to swell the ranks of contractually paid seafarers, most of whom remain underemployed or unemployed. The industry doesn't have to pay these daily wage earners, so bloating the pool has always been to its advantage. Foxy, and I do not mean Megan Foxy.

So we are retold the old shibboleths once again with a straight face. The Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), says one tale, "sees an annual increase of 2.3 percent in the number of ships of the world’s fleet. This means a steady annual increase in the demand for seafarers to man these ships".

Another story from the Philippines says, half accurately, "The Philippine manning sector must step up its recruitment of competent Filipino officers, as the global maritime community is still reeling for officer shortage." From where I stand, the only people doing any reeling are the community of jobless or underemployed first-time seafarers. 

"The manning sector estimates that the Philippines will need to produce about 24,206 new officers by 2015 or an equivalent of 4,841 per year." the story continues.

Even China, the country that I think will benefit the most from the global economic shakedown in the long run, with shipowners and shipyards both growing enormously- never mind the present dreary situation - does not seem to be able to resist the game. "Senior officer shortages in China have become serious, numbering more than 50,000 vacancies," we are told, because- surprise, surprise- the social status of seamen is not high and the career is still believed not to be safe.

I don't take these fairy tales seriously, because I doubt the integrity and motives of the cry wolf brigade. They speak with a forked tongue even when they speak the truth. For example, the issue of seafarer competence is a good one to raise, and I whole-heartedly agree with anybody who says that there is a shortage of competent officers today and that it will worsen with time, unaddressed as it is. The problem is that many of those who raise it today- administrators and regulators, in particular- were tasked with implementing or overseeing maritime training in the first place. That they now obliquely bring up their own incompetence is bad enough; what is worse is that they have no plans to change themselves in the future. The problem is always somewhere else.

Some countries are thinking the right thoughts, at least. Nini Lanto of the Pre-employment Services of Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) wants to replace retiring European and Japanese seafarers with his compatriots. Philippines has already, thanks to some European pressure, begun to do something about the competence of its seafarers and the problems with its MET assembly line. Overall, it appears to be well positioned with seafaring still an attractive proposition for many.

Besides the Philippines, seafarer numbers have grown in the last six or seven years in regions as diverse as China, Indonesia, Canada and Scandinavia, although some of this growth is insignificant in terms of numbers that are not large enough to make a decent dent in global industry requirements. Maersk is looking at Angolan seafarers, and many are looking at greater numbers out of Africa or Eastern Europe- maybe even parts of Southern and Western Europe too, given the job pressures there today. Some are talking once again of luring women into the profession; call me chauvinistic, but I would hate the women in my family working in a profession that is hostile enough for us men.

The Indian MET setup is in singular disarray in all this. Much hand wringing and soul searching goes on but the systemic paralysis continues. Consequently, India is making it easy for others to take away from its global seafarer market share, low as it is; it has not even begun to address the issues that caused the crisis. For the life of me, I cannot see how India can produce- unless it overhauls the entire system- sufficient numbers of competent officers for the future. Jobs for Indian junior officers are rapidly dwindling. It is just a question of time before good senior Indian officers are threatened with extinction, for where will the experienced come from if junior officers are throttled?

Meanwhile, let us forget about spewing out creative seafarer shortage numbers. In any case, shipping does not have the competence to produce believable numbers without ending up with egg on its face- one has to just look at the figures that were bandied about five years ago to know that. Even for the serious analyst, there are simply too many variables here - demolition activity, overtonnaging, high order books and individual company plans are just some of them. Shipping has never played the numbers game with any accuracy- the last forty years bear testimony to that.

Instead, the game will go the way it always has- based on short-term supply and demand. Individual companies will factor in planned growth and look to meet their requirements a year or two down the line. A few owners from China may flag out if the manpower shortage gets too bad. Seafarer competence will become a bigger and bigger issue -bigger and more complex ships, overregulation and increasing environmental concerns will ensure that. The global economy will recover in one year or ten- or it will find a new level at which to stagnate. More people will want to join and sail or not, and that will determine wages in part. Decisions will be made, as they always have been - on short term considerations.

This is a fluid game, not a static one. This is a chess game with many opponents instead of one. The way shipping is organised now, it is an exercise in futility to try to produce seafarer shortage numbers for even five years down the line. That is a job for the bored or the idle. Or the manipulative.


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