December 11, 2014

The officer shortage number delusion

(A confession: I wrote this piece a month and a half ago after IMO Secretary General Koji Sekimizu opined in a blog on near-future officer shortages after The Danish Maritime Forum in Copenhagen. I held off publication fearing I would be accused of being repetitive, since I have written about this stuff before. Nonetheless, I feel, now, that another warning is worthwhile.)

I have become accustomed to taking officer shortage predictions with a dollop of salt when they are spewed out by the captains of our industry. I know that their intentions are not honourable; they are in the business of enticing hundreds- or thousands, if they can- of youngsters based on these fanciful numbers. Swelling idle seafarer numbers cost them nothing and exaggerating demand is in their DNA.

I have a problem, though, when the topmost honcho of the topmost maritime agency in the world repeats, in writing in a blog, these bizarre numbers that remind me of the fanciful predictions that are being made about Indian stock market indices and how equity investments will multiply manifold in a few years.    

The logic shipmanagers and shipowners have sold to many, including Mr Sekimizu, apparently, is this: The current fleet is going to increase in size by 70 percent in the next fifteen years because a) see the past numbers and extrapolate(!) and b) shipping has to meet the increasing demand for seaborne trade with the growth of the world economy. So, their simple mathematics tells us that, if half the current number of half a million officers retires during this period, we would need to train an additional 600,000 officers to meet demand. At the very least, this logic says, we need half a million more officers by 2030. We had better start now; we need to train about 40,000 of them every year!

Where do these figures come from? Are they carefully reached or pulled out a hat? Do they take into account the unknown number of seamen and cadets without jobs or training berths today? Do they factor in the huge tonnage overhang or the fact that the industry claims that slow steaming is here to stay? Do the numbers take into account the massive ships that are coming out and the fact that every one of those ships means that two or three jobs- across each rank- will disappear?

I strongly suspect that shipping, fragmented and HRD-clueless, is actually incapable of producing any seafarer-demand numbers with any degree of accuracy. Besides, new environmental laws mean that the game has changed; we will probably see shorter vessel working life spans in the next decade, and we will almost certainly see more consolidation in some trades and more fragmentation in others. The offshore sector will throw up some surprises, too. To expect that shipping’s mandarins know it all- when many of them have a history of getting it wrong- is optimistic. To believe that they have no conflict of interest when they churn out officer shortage numbers is worse than optimistic; it is delusional.

By all accounts, Mr Sekimizu is an honourable man. Even more reason, then, to examine the numbers a little more carefully. Even more reason, then, to realise that what is in the industry’s interest is often not in the interests of the lowly seaman. Even more reason to be circumspect and not believe numbers that have been pulled out of a crooked hat; I am sure he does not want to become responsible for another horde of seamen running around from pillar to post in the streets of Mumbai and Manila looking for the hundreds of thousands of promised jobs that simply are not there.


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