October 16, 2014

Employee engagement

There is little attempt, in the vast majority of shipping, to engage in any serious way with officers and crew during their off periods. The stress on human capital, its retention and its engagement may be considered important by more than three quarters of the world’s business leaders, according to a Deloitte global survey, many of whom want to make HR and engagement a continuous and holistic part of their business strategy. Not shipping, though. It is still stuck in medieval times wherever HR is concerned.

Even though shipowners and shipmanagers seek out their seagoing contractual workers for euphemistically called seminars and such, this, in reality, is rarely a serious exercise to solicit seamen’s views or, indeed, to make them feel that they are a critical part of a broader industry that cares for them. That, in any case, is not seen by individual shipmanagers as part of their brief; they usually want loyalty, not professional opinion. That people’s attitude affects productivity and safety is well known in shipping; that people need to be engaged- and emotionally invested- to improve both is an alien concept.  

That we fail to harness positively the countless years of collective experience of those who sail is sad, as is the fact that we don’t see this as an exercise- a common practice almost everywhere else- as one that is essential to the industry. And, although much of the fault for this must fall on those ashore, seamen themselves are also to blame for this state of affairs.

At the end of a contract, crews that sign off from ships are usually mentally and physically fatigued and, after months of living on ships, do not want anything to do with shipping in the little time that they have at home. They often have pressing issues that are awaiting their arrival anyway; affairs have to be put in order, children have to be educated and family problems have to be defused. Besides, it is time to relax. I, for one, used to want to disengage with ships and shipping completely the minute I stepped off the gangway. Even a call to a company seminar was considered both an imposition on my time and a waste of it; I was wasting enough time anyway attending usually useless STCW and other courses anyway. If somebody had asked me to engage with the industry in some other way while I was sailing- even to give feedback or opinion- I would have laughed at them. I had neither the inclination nor the time to do so.

Many seamen today are not just fatigued. They are weary, and are even more disillusioned with the industry than I was; one has to just talk to them to see that. Many are only in it for the money, such as it is. Most seamen do not feel any particular need to make an effort to give anything back to shipping; they just want to take their money and run.
This ethos exists in some other industries too, so perhaps it is unfair to single out shipping here. I do believe, though, that shipping is unique in its working environment and that there is a higher challenge to be faced here than, for example, in a call centre or in an IT setup. There is therefore a greater need for professional seamen to share experiences, best practices and the like. There is greater need to have a far truer and much wider maritime community than what we see today.

There is also a great need to have seamen feel that they belong in this industry as equals, not as second class citizens. For them to feel that their experience is valuable and their professional opinion is valued. That is an important first step that, barring a few exceptions, has still to be taken. 



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