June 19, 2009


In the information technology company with which I was associated once, an office wag had a Shakespearean ‘seven stages of a software engineer’s life’ theory down pat. According to his theory, some typical traits existed in software developers, and one could tell at what stage of their professional life they were in very easily by just simple observation of their behaviour. The first stage was a raw recruit, then a potential H1B emigrant, a typical engineer arriving on his first visit to the US at an airport counter shaking in his boots in fear of immigration officials: so much so that he had to be counselled by seniors in India before departure. Later, another stage was when he returned on his first holiday to India sporting Ray Ban sunglasses and an accent. The next stage was looking for a software engineer wife, then a car and a suburban house, a green card and so on.

Thirty years or so ago, most of us who went out to sea were typical too, although quite disorganised as to our long term plans. We worked hard, and, thanks to long port stays, we played hard. We blew up money and earned more. Eventually we passed exams, got promotions, bought apartments and houses and saved and invested, but even that was, in many instances, almost a sideshow. Still later, we started wondering how long we were going to continue to sail. If we did not quit, we worked and saved some more. The dollar rose. Our families sailed with us when they could. A time soon came when many fell into the ‘one last contract syndrome’, promising ourselves that we would quit after this trip or the next one. Tomorrow never came for some; others quit and took up shore jobs if age and beauty was on their side. Life was not too planned, which, as it turned out, was a mixed blessing.

If we generalise a bit and examine the mindset of a trainee entering shipping today, there are marked differences in outlook, and for very good reasons. He (let me say ‘he’ at the risk of being politically incorrect and in the interests of a smoother narrative) has come out to sea because, either for academic reasons or financial ones, he could not afford ‘better’ options. He may not have an exit strategy at the outset, but he is certainly less happier sailing than we were at his age and is thinking of quitting within a couple of years. He is, therefore, already well underway to becoming a disgruntled employee.

Dissatisfied, he continues to sail because he doesn’t have workable options just yet. And, thanks to the paucity of shore leave opportunities, he saves more. He invests more, too, and at an earlier age. Later, if married, the chances are higher today that his wife may be working or in a career of her own. In any case, smaller accommodation and lifeboat capacities, mixed nationalities, short port stays, reluctant employers and multiple visa requirements make it less likely that his family will sail with him much. Issues of internet connectivity are magnified in the information age. Piracy and criminalisation of seafarers are niggling irritants that can become life threatening ones quite quickly. Fatigue, depending on the ship and the run, can become a way of life. Meanwhile, he sees shore salaries for qualified and experienced people hitting the roof. He has money saved now. He wants out. An MBA or some such qualification gives him the option. Why blame him for taking this route out? I do not know about you, but his outlook seems logical and valid to me.

It is dismaying that ship managers sitting ashore, many of whom are ex Masters and Chief Engineers, do not seem to care enough to address this mindset and make it work to their advantage; perhaps their own contractual employment mindset and that of the mariner, coupled with the fact that out of the box thinking is a quality we in Shipping are not really known or rewarded for, contributes to the problem.

It is clear to me that it would be beneficial all round if one could manage the ship to shore transition of the seafarer better, mainly because an employee who knows that his professional and personal growth is headed in a desirable direction automatically becomes more efficient. Besides, he is likely to try harder to remain in the company’s good books. So I wonder: what if a company factored in, during rotational planning for shipboard assignments, the schedule for a good correspondence course based qualification that the mariner was inclined towards? There are already many, including good ones abroad. Just one example; I did my Institute of Chartered Shipbroking exams after a correspondence course before I appeared for my Master’s ticket twenty years or so ago.

If I were sitting in a management office in downtown Mumbai today, I would spend time trying to answer this question: “What will it take for selected and good officers to choose to stay with us till they quit sailing? Additionally, after higher qualification, what will it take for the best amongst these guys, (who, I might add, will get qualified at their own expense and time), to want to work with us ashore thereafter?”

The solutions are so obvious that it is befuddling why they are not already widely applied:

• Identify your star performers afloat and talk to them regularly. What are they thinking of doing longer term?
• Research and provide alternatives to all sailing officers and engineers for further study in the maritime or management fields. Keep this information current in your office. (Won’t take much, although you can tie up with an educational consultancy setup to do so)
• Encourage correspondence courses of quality and proven international recognition.
• Do not limit yourself to correspondence courses. Can a two year programme be done over four years, the officer continuing to sail when he is not studying or attending classes?
• Facilitate this further education in all Company operations, including scheduling so that the officer is ashore for exams, sending material on board if required etc. Inexpensive, in these days of digitised information.
• Consider ‘time off to study’ as part of the officers rotation. We do that for professional examinations already, don’t we?
• Try and match Company projected requirements ashore to personnel on board and their plans. Everybody wins if this works out. Even if it does not, you have retained a good employee throughout his sailing life, which is the best you can do; he was probably quitting sailing anyway.

One last comment: It is shameful that we do not, in this industry, have any clue about the options each of our seafarer employees is looking at when he considers the future. Does he want to sail for another five years? Ten? One? What does he see himself doing five years from today? What will excite him? How can we marry the Company’s plans with each mariner’s so that everybody, including the firm, prospers and everybody is happy at work? It is worth remembering here that happiness is not part of a mariner’s contract, but it certainly does wonders for efficiency.

If we manage this transition well, we will automatically improve performance and retain competence within the company and industry. What stops us from doing this today? Is it inertia? Or is it that, like blinkered horses and trial marriages, our horizons are limited and we just cannot see beyond a few months at a time?