The stifling of maritime skills threatens Indian shipping in many ways. We easily acknowledge problems like poor calibre of new entrants or their dwindling numbers. Less easily admitted- although that is changing fast- is the corruption in the new-entrant job market that has permeated every pore of the industry and its administration. Admitted extremely rarely, on the other hand, are longer term problems that are on nobody’s radar screen at the moment. For one, that the near complete absence of good seafarers today will translate into a drought of able administrators and technically competent ex-mariners sitting ashore tomorrow is something that has been ignored so far.
The last few decades have seen many Indians move to- and thrive in- shipping management jobs ashore, but they have usually done so on the back of solid experience at sea. True, some of them stayed at sea just long enough to get what some in India derisively call the ‘chhapa’- a Master’s or Chief Engineer’s stamp on their CDC. Many of these folk took additional professional qualifications, many more picked up management jargon and some even picked up the tools of their new trade ashore. Nothing unusual; happens in many other industries too. My point is that many thrived in their new environment because they had potential, were academically competent to begin with, and had gained professional experience- or enough experience anyway- at sea.
This is not going to happen with the new generation. The combination of suspect academic credentials, low commitment and an attitude that sees sailing as ‘a couple of years’ kind of thing will not magically lead to riches, glory, or a future in industry ashore. In fact, I strongly suspect that many Indians joining the profession today will struggle to reach a stage when they will command ships or control engine rooms to begin with, for there is a steep curve that they have to go up before they will be good enough to do so.
What this will do to the overall employability of Indians in shipping is anybody’s guess. Traditionally, shipping has always sourced many of its technical and operational managers from the growing pool of experienced Masters and Chief Engineers. If the numbers of these fall drastically, as I suspect, or if ship owners move to other nationalities, as many believe, then it is obvious that the future managers of shipping will come from amongst nationalities that are producing enough Masters and Chief Engineers to begin with.
Faced with an analogous situation, Europe and the US have protected their shore maritime jobs somewhat by stifling immigration from Asia and elsewhere. India does not have the ability to do that; in any case, it is not a global shipping centre that can attract financial, insurance or other maritime businesses anyway. Moreover, it is not a major shipowning country, and none of its nationals are major ship owners internationally- with the possible exception of SCI, but government owned units work along different paradigms. And shipmanning - the one area that has seen a lot of foreign interest over the last thirty years or so- is dying, because Indian seafarers are dying. Shipmanagement will go, eventually- in a generation or so- to countries producing seafarers at the time; only natural.
The signs are already there for those who want to see them. The fall in calibre, competence and experience at sea is a given, but those who have sailed in the last few years have noticed, on the ground, larger number of people like superintendents and surveyors landing up on ships with insufficient experience or knowledge. Operations managers who have little expertise in operations trying to handle, unsuccessfully, complex ships and their loading rotations. We see DPA’s who would struggle to manage safety in a lifeboat. Insurance surveyors with strange ideas about seaworthiness. Inexperienced- dangerously inexperienced- pilots.
When competence drops, it drops across the board. The dumbing down of the industry ashore- led by the dumbing down of the industry afloat- is, essentially, what I am talking about. There are too many Chiefs and not enough Indians already. The blind will soon be leading the blind in greater numbers than ever.
There is a paradox of sorts in all this, which muddies the waters and makes it appear that Indian shipmanagement companies- and the jobs they create in the country ashore- are on the ascendant. Because so many shipowners that own just a few ships find it so hard to manage them on their own in today’s crazy regulatory and commercial environment, we continue to see comparatively large numbers of vessels going to shipmanagement companies. It may therefore appear, for some time at least, that because these companies are thriving, the countries that they source personnel from have it made.
I think this notion is erroneous to the extreme, and I equate it with a situation where a mom-and-pop store suddenly notices a spurt in business, and realises that this is thanks to the footfalls generated by the nearby parking lot of a big supermarket that has opened in the neighbourhood. Mom and Pop may temporarily rejoice, but unless they are stupid, they know that they are on their way out. That their very survival is at stake.