April 27, 2008

Right now

Shipping magazines lately seem to be inundated with articles on how companies are dealing with the manpower shortage. Some stress their new initiatives. Most combine the old high salary+short contract+family carriage+safety standard paradigm and hope for the best. Many stress their size, which doesn’t really matter.

Some of these companies proclaim they are thinking-out-of-the-box. Perhaps they are, and perhaps seafarers are flocking to them. The overwhelming sense I get, however, is one of jaded, desperate and repetitive actions which result in predictable and well experienced outcomes. The more things change, the more they seem the same.

Meanwhile, stories have started doing the rounds of managers sitting on candidates’ documents while reneging on their wage offered commitments- it is obvious that they have not learnt anything new in the last thirty years.

In managementspeak, proclamations of paradigm shifts are catchy and feel-good. Unfortunately, these often postpone action to later. Like Alice in Wonderland, the implication is “jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today”.
We need more than catchy phrases. We need a two pronged approach: Strategies for retention of employees in the future as well as tactics for attracting employees today. Because without managing today, there may not be much of a tomorrow left.

In a couple of previous articles I have suggested longer term strategies; in this one, I would like to suggest a few steps the more intrepid amongst us could actually take, right now.

I would strongly advise, however, that every company take some time to gauge it’s requirement of manpower long term before this exercise. A tough ask, because like the Indian stockmarket till recently, long term has been taken to be one month, where it actually should be a couple of years, at least.

Perhaps some of these proposals could be tried out instead of vanilla salary revisions- there is no automatic assumption that seafarers prefer one over the other here. The goal is to promote a sense of belonging and well being amongst potential and current employees- and not just to encourage them to ‘get what they can’ in the present manpower scenario.

Some of these measures could also be in exchange for an enforceable or demonstrated long term commitment by the seafarer; and in fact, companies could do well to push the advantages to the seafarer of this commitment at every opportunity, and stress how such a relationship is of mutual benefit. In the hurly-burly of demand and supply, many of us often forget that.

I would also advise some number crunching, as these suggestions impact profitability for owners. I am convinced, though, that a cost-benefit analysis would justify many of these actions:

1. Reduce tours of duty to a maximum of four months for Junior Officers, and three months for Seniors. This would address somewhat one major minus of being at sea in an era where a contract is akin to a jail term- albeit a decently paid one.
2. Put in place cheap private communication. Emails to be freely possible, and free. Phone calls home could be either subsidised, or better, made considerably cheaper by installation of new technology. I believe that a ten minute call home almost everyday (What? Too much? How often do managers call home when on tour?) should be possible at about a hundred dollars a month, give or take.
3. Assign seafarers back to the same ship as far as possible, and with the same crew. Will address issues of disorientation and social isolation and promote a feeling of belonging. I have seen this happening, and it works.
4. Do not short-man ships. I do not refer to the manning certificate levels, which are often a joke, but levels appropriate for the ship, it’s condition and it’s run.
5. Do not dump administrative workload on board which belongs to the office. In fact, try the reverse, on the assumption that there are often more idle people in shore offices than on board.
6. Involve seafarer’s families in social activities. Some companies are doing this, and it is a good idea. Like the military worldwide which has an automatic and often informal community supporting families while the soldier is away, our families need this support, too.
7. Give maximum opportunity for families to sail- even though very often they will decline to do so, for many reasons we all know.
8. A group medical insurance scheme for seafarers (between tenures) and their families.
9. Repatriation for close family emergencies.
10. Demonstrated commitment to timely reliefs at the completion of the agreed upon tenure.
11. Incentives based on performance, not on time served.

On another note, and on the shortage of entry level seafarers- particularly deck cadets and trainee engineers .

I think that our industry’s inability to attract well educated and academically excellent urban youth is fait accompli. We would do well to stop banging our head on that wall at once. Higher salaries ashore, better lifestyles and an easier, more normal life are all enemies we cannot easily conquer.

Instead, what if we concentrated on smart, well educated youth from the smaller towns? Lets face it, all we require of an entrant at that stage is a proficiency in Math and some Science, particularly Physics- which is language independent. I would also suggest targeting youth who do not speak or write good English - maybe even any English- and training them extensively in the language as part of their pre-sea training.
Fluency in written and spoken English is a must, if we are to retain our competitive edge.

I would tend to think many of these youngsters would find shipping salaries very attractive; they would also have fewer alternative options. I would canvas coastal areas first, maybe fishing communities and others connected with them. Branch offices of manning companies could handle this; it would get their officers out in some fresh air too.

One last item on my agenda which is long term but needs to be started soon.
I have been convinced for awhile now that what the Shipmanning and management industry needs is a well functioning apex body. The advantages of this are obvious; lobbying and cooperation with government and international regulatory bodies and non-regulatory associations, promotion of best practices, co-operation between members, advancement of ethical practices- the list is endless.

I also think that, within this apex body, a committee of serving seafarers across ranks would be an excellent idea. This would perhaps balance the initiatives been taken in today’s manpower crunch with some real time feedback- without which these decisions tend to be taken in a vacuum, as they now are.
How that can be managed with these ‘committee’ seafarers sailing for half the year is problematic, but not insurmountable. Perhaps a rotating committee or somesuch may be the answer.

In addition to the advantages already mentioned, such an apex body would be able to propose a concerted course of action to address the many manpower issues related to the industry today. Not only that, it would be able to realistically project future requirements, trends and training needs.
Also and very importantly, it would address the issue of the perceived negative profile the industry, and what could be done to make it more attractive for future generations of seafarers and managers.

Existing associations like FOSMA have somehow not been empowered to address these issues in a big way. For example, an association like the one I suggest would have no role in direct training of it’s members employees. It would be a facilitator across the spectrum without any operational role at all.

I envisage an organisation like NASSCOM, which has served the Software industry well. Let’s just say “A National Association of Shipmanagement Companies”

NASMCOM, anyone?

First published in www.marexbulletin.com

No comments: