December 09, 2007

The woods and the Trees

Over the last few years, the voices bemoaning the manpower shortage, or, to put it more accurately, the shortage of appropriately competent seafarers, have become more strident. Perhaps the writing on the wall is getting larger. As a sailing Master, I have been bemused and dismayed by much of all this. To me, all of us, afloat or ashore, continue to refuse to see the woods for the trees.

So, if I may be permitted to generalise for a moment or two, this is what I see from the bridge of a ship:

Manning agents both love and curse the shortage with equal gusto; on one hand, demand for body shopping is high, on the other hand, they can’t find enough bodies to shop. Their buck stops at putting a body on board for the desired period, and hoping that the body is minimally competent enough, and that their principals stay happy with them.
Or, in any event, happy enough not to take their business elsewhere.

Shipowners, insurers and other commercial and cargo interests see the balance sheet. Are we covered against the mess which may be created by increasingly professionally dubious guys coming out to sea? What is the worst case scenario? Is the ship moving? Are there cargo claims? What is it costing us? Can we put the ‘top four’ of a higher competency and run the ship with other less competent guys? Are we insured against this?
At the end of the day, their buck stops at bean counting.

Management companies and Superintendents see their own profit and loss statements, leading to sometimes amusing comments. One Master is “good but gives away too much overtime, or too many ‘presents’ to shore guys”, a Chief Engineer spends too much on spares (regardless of the problems he may have faced, or the preventive maintenance he has done on machinery); another Master actually has the temerity to put the Owner’s interests on par with that of the Mangement company; A Superintendent sees his budget and possibly his bonus as shot, and does not see (or can’t explain expenses to the Owners, because they are looking short term, too) the long term benefits of actions taken on board.

Seminars are held to create a sense of community (read loyalty); seafarers are asked to attend, by the less reputable Companies, at their own cost; speeches are made indicating that professionalism is low, hands are wrung- how do we attract , not the best, but even the mediocre, to the industry? How do we retain them? Stories are swapped and filed away to be used in future seminars.

Figures are churned out as to the shortage in the next five years, ten years, fifteen years. More hand wringing. More missing the woods for the trees.

Training is conducted if it cannot be mandated as a prerequisite to Certificates of Competency. Seafarers are expected to attend without compensation. In fact, till recently they were sometimes required to attend seminars and training at their own cost of travel and sometimes even lodging. The training is often mediocre or poor, though Owners are probably charged hefty amounts for ‘training’ their crews.
(This system of seminars and training must be indeed unique in any industry, worldwide. Training and seminars without salary, and sometimes training and seminars which leave a seafarer out of pocket, too, though not the other participants. )

The appropriate noises are made about safety, pollution and other such buzzwords. My understanding of what is meant, after about 30 years at sea, is this… Follow the rules, spend minimum money, don’t get caught, and if caught, or if there is an incident involving safety or pollution, don’t point fingers.
And, by the way, we are behind you.
Sure. (Not sure, though, whether these folk are supporting me from behind, or are hiding there)

Statistics are compiled. Studies are done, mostly outside India. Surveys are sometimes announced. Seafarers opinions are rarely sought, and then not too seriously.

Similar conclusions are reached; the seafarer faces problems, unnatural life, away from family, controlled communication and contact with family, criminalisation, paperwork, over-regulation, shortmanning, short port stays, ISPS and shore leave… all of us know this list.

Manuals are compiled with alacrity. Sometimes so quickly that the name of the previous Company, or another ship, is not even deleted from some pages before printing. These manuals, in impeccable English, are supposed to be understood and signed by crews who sometimes have no knowledge of basic English, and who read and sign six manuals in ten minutes.
After so many years in command, I am still confused whether the purpose of the manuals is to pre-empt incidents, help the Master after an incident, or help many worldwide to cover themselves in the event of fallout after an untoward incident.
(Our ISM is in place, therefore the butler, oops Master, did it. )

And, of course, clerical work which belongs to the office is passed on to the ship; it is cheapest this way. Never mind that the ship is touching ten ports in as many days in and around the English Channel and North Sea in winter fog, and never mind if there is pressure to do paperwork on the bridge instead of keeping a proper lookout. Ashore we would have to employ a whole department to deal with this, on board it is free!
Send more forms, and the forms will set you free.

And all of the above is done with the almost complete absence of seafarer input.

Nobody asks a sailor his opinion. Not Governments, not the IMO, not the management ashore. Officers are able to propose changes to manuals, checklists and the like, yes, but they are not expected to provide much input in formulating them. Unsurprisingly then, absurd stories with paperwork abound.

It is almost as if the sailing seafarer has no voice, or has signed away his right to an opinion when he signed his contract.

As an industry, all of us have so far failed to address basic Human Resource issues, besides more pay, shorter contracts, and some other minor sops. The needs of the seafarer have not changed all that much; a safe ship, market wages, decent food, short tenures away from the family… these priorities have remained static for a few decades.
Although for senior officers, changed priorities have been quality of crew and, in view of the increasing criminalisation, the run and quality of management. When the stuff hits the fan, these matter to a Master at sea.

We have also failed to manage the contradictory pulls of contractual employment on one hand and a long term commitment desired by the industry on the other. Relationships within the industry are only based on money, including those between an employer and a seafarer. Both are responsible for this.

Seafarers of my generation came to sea for reasons which don’t exist today. Travelling the world loses its charm when you can’t go ashore and port stays are counted in hours and not days. Salaries lose their charm when shore salaries are comparable, even better if you are suitably qualified. Life on board has deteroriated, accomodations are smaller, food is more basic, entertainment options are more limited, communication is better but restricted or expensive, and a drink may be close to a criminal activity. It is small wonder, then, that many of today’s youngsters want to quit sailing at the first opportunity, and never see it as a career.

I do blame them, however, for wantonly and easily accepting lower professional standards. That is a problem in itself; we have too many people sailing today who are not competent by even a large stretch of the imagination. Every Master, Chief Engineer and Superintendent can fill volumes with incidents which display professional mediocrity at sea, or worse.

The problem is that each stakeholder in shipping does not look beyond his or her immediate benefit. As long as the solution was cheaper crews, this worked, albeit imperfectly; but now it now appears that we may be running out of cheaper officers, at least in the numbers required. New measures are called for-the old ones have obviously not worked.

In conclusion, just some of these suggestions would go a long way in breaking this deadlock:

A career path, including stepping ashore at a later date, for officers. To do this, evaluations systems would have to be improved, internal communication in the organisation shored up. But, subject to performance, a future career path should be clear to an entrant.

Better HRD practices. Present HRD, such as it is, stops at recruitment. HRD has to go beyond that; equally, it has to demonstrate it. The us vs them (shore vs sailing) paradigm has to be shifted. Make HRD an integral part of the Company, and not just restricted to hiring, firing and ticketing issues. A contractual system does not have to mean it should be an adversarial one. Promote a sense of belonging.

Reduction in overregulation within the business. A comprehensive review of paperwork with an intent to cut it down. Promote a system which does not seek a manual as a solution to a problem.

Senior Officers mentoring juniors at sea. This practice has fallen by the wayside because of other pressures. Pressures cannot be reduced, but paper certainly can. Cadets were always cheap labour, now they are just cheap labour, sometimes cheap clerks. We don’t train them at sea, and then we complain they are not trained properly.

Addressing poor motivation issues of many seagoing staff. Reasons include lack of professionalism, inability to recognise how a well-run system will make their own lives safer and sometimes plain cussedness. Another reason is inertia on the part of older, senior officers, some of whom apparently see no reason to change with the times.

Changing the incentive system. Companies give incentives according to time served or number of contracts completed or on rejoining. Few give incentives based on performance. This does not work; seniority does not necessarily mean superiority in your job.
Include serving seafarers in formulation of policy and documentation issues. Perhaps this should start with the IMO, and not be restricted to developed countries or government nominees, but include a cross section of sailors from the public and private sector.

And finally, let us all, ashore and afloat, refuse to accept lower professional standards at sea. We are shooting ourselves in the foot by doing so.

The industry is chugging along in the absence of a concerted effort by all the stakeholders in it. The results are there for all to see. Unless we determine to change this; unless we can look at the horizon instead of the dirt just in front of our shoes, we might as well close shop and go home.

First published in