September 04, 2008

Carpe Diem

May I remind all of us, especially those who are serious about overhauling our archaic system of sourcing and retaining seafarers, improving maritime legislation or operations and addressing other Industry critical issues, that we don't have unlimited time to do so?

And this is why I think so:

Shipping is in a boom cycle. Right now, everybody is making money. Thousands of additional officers are required, and everybody is trying to figure out which woodwork they will crawl out from. Industry flesh is willing to experiment, spend money, think laterally and, most importantly, give time to this massive problem. Putting it more succinctly, the ship manning crisis is a cluster bomb exploding in our faces and so demanding immediate attention. It is a clear and present danger.

It will not remain so indefinitely. And mental bandwidths, money and resolve will all dissolve if, for example, the business of shipping sees a recession coming up or notices a new commercial danger that threatens to eclipse the present one. Besides being human nature, this is also in the nature of the beast: the maritime industries seem to believe largely in management by firefighting, at least so far.

Some recruiting companies may wonder why we should bother to solve a problem if it is temporary. After all, we are booming today: who knows where we will be ten years later? Meanwhile, I am all right, Jack. I can kill time for the next few years and retire with my pension plan.

After all, when supply matches demand or exceeds it, there is no problem, is there?

There is a problem, actually. Killing time waiting for the problem to pass does not solve ongoing issues of Indian youth voting with their feet rejecting seafaring as a career. It does not solve the problem of lower safety at sea because of quick promotions or inexperienced officers on board and the fact that we tend to see seafarers as labour, not employees, with consequent ongoing troubles. Long term growth of the Indian maritime sector is, therefore, not possible unless these problems are addressed.

In addition, of course, if the number of Indian seafarers reduces, so will the requirement of Indian recruiters. Chinese recruiters (why do I hesitate to use the term Ship managers?) may well manage Chinese seafarers better, if that is the way we are headed. Killing time may therefore kill the golden goose; it may well be a suicidal idea.

We also need to remember that a large pool of seafarers will automatically generate a pool of talent waiting at the blocks to sprint into areas within the Industry where we do not have predominance yet; Insurance, Project Management, Maritime Law and Arbitration, Chartering, Risk Management and Reinsurance are the tip of this iceberg. We are only limited by our imagination here.

Indians should plan to dominate the maritime world. Is there a reason why Mumbai should not aim to replace London as a preferred international Industry node?

To achieve this, we have to act today. Today governments will act faster than they usually do because of market forces; see how resources are being pumped into ports and associated infrastructure, and how new initiatives are being taken with coastal shipping. Single minded and concerted pressure to improve the broader shipping policy needs to be applied; it is only logical that Indian ocean shipping be given the same thrust.

We need to pressure international maritime organisations today. Along with the Phillipines, we cannot be ignored at the global seafaring table. Similar to the demand for a Security Council Seat at the UN, India has to raise its profile at the IMO. It must have a larger say in what is mandated for the shipping community, because it has a larger stake in it today. The time to do that has come. We should not be satisfied with being poor cousins anymore.

Indian government and industry organisations should take the lead in protecting Indian seafarer interests. A beginning has been made with the Hebei Spirit case. However, statements like this made by an official recently saying, “We are telling maritime training institutes to hide this incident from young boys looking to take up a career at sea” serve us poorly. This is, simply, not the way to attract talent in the information age. The way to do it is to empower people: with information, knowledge and excellent professional training. Trying to lure them with falsehoods will only exacerbate the mess the industry finds itself in.

Flag and Port States will listen more and often to an awakened maritime India pushing to take its rightful place in the world. Right now we always negotiate from a position of weakness, and it is not unsurprising that we walk away with weak results.

Owners will listen better in boom times. They are making money and want to grow. We need to show them that we are capable of solving their longer term manpower, operational, technical and commercial concerns.

Delay will cost us. If we don't take the lead in responding to the needs of the maritime community worldwide, somebody else will. The vacuum will be filled anyway, since nature abhors it; it will just not be filled by us. We don't want to be in a postion where a Chinese columnist writes an article, much like this one and ten years from today, reminding readers how the Chinese successfully replaced Indian mariners worldwide at sea and ashore, do we?

The time is now. Start tackling the rot at two levels today. First, systemic problems have to be solved by a mix of government and private initiatives which streamline policy to respond to the needs of the present generation of Shipping. Industry bodies have to get their acts together today to do this.

Secondly, we have to start acting on individual ideas for improvement right now. Most of us have thoughts on strengthening the Indian maritime industry which we think will work. We have to implement them in our own little ways and within the spheres of our professional influence, starting today. Gauge success and adopt quickly to the fast changing industry environment. Have the courage of your own convictions: take them to the marketplace!

Remember Shaw's words: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man"

Therefore, at least for the Ship managers out there (as opposed to the Recruiters) the time is now. Strike when the iron is hot, when your efforts will get a hearing and traction from owners who are focused on the cluster bomb threatening their economic well being. Strike now, when the Indian government can be persuaded to see the advantages of incremental employment, removal of infrastructure bottlenecks and growth opportunities for the country. Strike now, when Port and Flag States can see business increasing provided that they get their ducks in a row. Strike now, when the wider industry is straining to grow but is hamstrung by ancient policies and unsustainable strategies.

Strike now, for nobody will listen to you in a recession.

India provides 6% of the personnel in the global shipping industry. We have an excellent opportunity to raise this percentage; aiming to just retain market share is not the formula for growth.

This is the moment to show the world, like we did a few decades ago when we demonstrated that India could provide quality officers to the world fleet in large numbers. Well educated, professional, good language skills, hardworking and with integrity. This is the time to launch a similar attack on the wider maritime world.

So, folks, killing time is not an option, for all the reasons above; reasons which Thoreau summarises with his usual brilliance:

"As if you could kill time without injuring eternity"

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