November 14, 2013

Wasting time

I remain critical of shipmanagement companies on most counts; indeed, I believe that the third-party shipmanagement model much of shipping operates under is deeply flawed and negatively impacts a seaman’s working life and his career. A seaman- or a ship owner worth his salt- does not need a body-shopping middleman who is not interested in either of them long-term, lip-service aside. I understand the advantages the shipmanagement model offers an owner with no knowledge of shipping, but for seamen, shipmanagement companies are the places to be if you are mediocre. Owners will appreciate you and reward you if you are good and they are dealing directly with you. Shipmanagers, on the other hand, will reward you most if you are near incompetent. You will not lose your job; you will be shunted to other, less important, client ship owners in their pool.

That said, there is one thing a handful of big shipmanagement companies are doing right in India; their training and placement of cadets- engineering or deck- is far superior to those of individual training institutes. I am convinced that unless the body of individual MET establishments overhaul themselves drastically, and unless the authorities revamp completely the Pre-Sea training mould that stand-alone institutes follow, a time will soon come when the shipmanagement training model will be the only real game in town. 

The one major advantage these companies have over the institutes is that they can guarantee sea training berths for their cadets, of course. (That the rest of the industry needs to also go this way is a given, but nobody wants to kill the goose laying the golden eggs yet, so this will not happen in a hurry.) Whatever, the obvious and collateral advantages of a potential student knowing that he has an on-board training berth waiting for him are many- a much better academic calibre of intake, superior language and basic science skills, greater incentive to perform well during training and the like. In contrast, cadets at individual MET institutes are often found abysmally wanting in basic English and science skills, are generally academically poor and are less motivated- and that motivation nosedives further when they know that they will have to struggle to get a cadetship at the completion of their training even if they are willing to pay touts and corrupt personnel in shipping companies.

Other advantages that shipmanagement company owned training establishments have are smaller. I agree that many smaller MET setups will never have the deep pockets that shipmanagement companies enjoy and so will struggle as simulation based training widens or greater funding is required for infrastructure. But these smaller organisations can still afford, if they want, decently paid faculty (well, no maritime faculty is paid decently, but still..) and can offer individual attention to their (usually smaller) batches of students. That most don’t has much to do with the fact that producing excellent graduates seems less important than making a few extra bucks, and also because the small MET setup- unlike the bigger shipmanagement owned one- is not invested in the quality of output and has no stake in what kind of officers its cadets eventually become. It usually doesn’t even know how good they are at sea.

It would be easy to make the prediction that the smaller MET setups will close down because their output continues to be either jobless or substandard. However, I don’t see that happening too easily. Corruption or influence will keep the system going far longer than we think. Actually, I feel a little sorry for smaller setups, because they have to spend a fair amount of money on infrastructure and in following the regulator’s ‘guidelines,’ they have no control over training berth availability (except the tout route, and that is deeply flawed and downright criminal) and are pressured into spending, additionally, tens of millions on expensive simulators and the like today. I also feel sorry for them because it is not only their fault that the system is flawed or corrupt. 

Come to think of it, the only real advantage the shipmanagement company owned training setups enjoy is the guarantee, to their students, that they will be able to sail as cadets on ships. So, if the Ministry of Shipping wants to pursue its long term (and presently laughable) strategy of increasing the global percentage of Indian seamen with any seriousness at all, the way forward is actually quite simple: Push training berths at sea. And do not allow anybody to undergo Pre-Sea training that cannot be guaranteed one of these sea berths.

If we do this much, the rest will follow, as it did when I went out to sea. As it did, not all that long ago, when thousands of Indians replaced Europeans and others aboard the merchant ships of the world. And we did it without some big and complicated plan; it just happened.

Unfortunately, we need a clean system to do what needs to be done. What we have, instead, is exactly what we don’t need- a corrupt and self-interest riddled system at home backed by a corrupt and self-interest riddled international ‘STCW training’ regime promoted by the IMO. Unless we break these shackles- one with strict policing and by selectively training only those we can employ, and the other with thoughtful and selective implementation of ill conceived regulation- we will get nowhere except to that dark corner on earth reserved for hand-wringers. And for those who waste time reading and writing columns such as this.


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