August 13, 2015

Clerks or sailors?

It is remarkable, but hardly surprising, how well informed the young seagoing officers of today are about regulatory and administrative paperwork. They know all about which forms to fill in when and which manuals should be cross-referenced with which procedures. They know all about matrices and vetting inspection administration and can reel off minute details about the latest Marpol annexures with ease. They know chapter and verse of a company’s increasingly onerous (and, usually, equally useless) administration requirements. They know all this because shipping has brought them up this way. 

The problem is that- when you combine this unholy stress on paperwork with our inability to attract youth of calibre, our insistence on shortening sea time requirements with questionable distance learning programmes and our disregard for how much paperwork contributes to fatigue and its aftermath- the problem is that these youngsters do not get- because of this- enough experience on the water that is critical to making a halfway decent officer. The problem is that they are spending too much time at a desk and too little on the main deck or the bridge. The reality is that administration- whether at sea or ashore- is the salad, not the main dish. The problem is, therefore, that the tail is wagging the dog.

This is a systematic snafu. Managers ashore push manuals and paperwork onto crews for two reasons. One, they want cheap- read free- clerks at sea to do administrative stuff (just one example, payroll) that clearly belongs ashore. Two, they want to escape responsibility and liability if anything untoward happens (We told the Master and the crew; we required them to fill up forms in triplicate. They screwed up. In any case, the Master has overriding authority- read our manuals! Therefore, error of servant, Melud! Yay, you can hang the crew, but we ashore are home free!)

It does not help the cause- the running of a merchant ship- that much of the paperwork is duplicated or unnecessary, takes too much time and is drafted by outdated ex-seamen with low general management skills. It does not help that the regulations thrust on these managers by the IMO, Flag or Port States and the like are often made by people who have no clue about life on the water. It does not help that, over the years, layer upon layer of paper has been loaded on ships without any overview as to what is actually required and what old documentation needs to be discarded. It does not help that the imperative to cover one’s backside- the default setting of many in shipping- is a big reason why we are where we are today. 

It does not help that the system is self-propagating, like a parasite in your intestine. 

You know, all these manuals and checklists are only plans, and, as the old military saying goes, no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Unfortunately, by overstressing manuals and checklists, we are breeding a generation of seafarers who often cannot think beyond what is written down and mandated, whose ability to think outside the box is severely compromised and whose instinct to take the initiative has been alarmingly deadened. We have spread the disease of a clerical mindset, ignoring the fact that clerks cannot be sailors. That clerks are, almost by definition, followers, not leaders. That we want our seamen to be exactly the opposite.  

We claim merchant seamen are in the second most dangerous profession in the world, but what we are doing is hobbling them and making their working lives even more unsafe. This may be an extreme analogy, but we do not ask soldiers to fill checklists during incoming fire, do we?

Keep the paper in shoreside offices where it can keep do the least damage and allow everybody to pretend they are busy; our crews have enough to do at sea already. Have a culture of thoughtful compliance- maximum in practice but with minimum paperwork. And for heaven’s sake, employ one or two data entry operators in your overstaffed offices, instead of laying a claim on your seamen’s’ time that is much better spent on more important things.

But we won’t do that. Maybe we need a piece of paper to tell us to do so. 


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