November 25, 2010

Wild optimism

I distrust third party management consulting reports. They are usually commissioned by organisations with hidden agendas, are indicative of the commissioning organisation’s inefficiency (do you really expect a bunch of young hotshot MBAs with little business experience to know more about your businesses than you do yourselves?), and, after the dust settles, will be put away in fancy bookcases to be taken out only when their fancy spines need to be periodically dusted. Occasionally, interested folk will selectively use some findings of these reports to push their own narrow points of view.

It is with some hesitation, therefore, that I quote McKinsey’s recent report that says that there are 1.1 million seafarers- officers and ratings- in the world today and that Indians constitute 6.3 percent (officers) and 7.5 percent (ratings) of this number. The Ministry of Shipping wants to increase Indian seafarer market share to 9 percent in five years; by this time, the demand for seafarers- both officers and ratings- is slated to touch 1.4 million. I must point out that the IMO’s statistics are different. Secretary-General Mr. Efthimios E. Mitropoulos referred in September to there being today “1.5 million seafarers in the world.” The difference between 1.1 and 1.5 million is pretty large: this lack of clarity is symptomatic of the confusion that generally reigns ashore with regard to anything to do with mariner affairs.

I assume, even with all those iffy statistics and assuming an equal number of Indian ratings and officers, that the percentage of Indian seamen stands at about 6.9 of the global workforce. So, using the figures above, I reckon that there are approximately anywhere between 75,000 and 100,000 active Indians mariners today. To put things in perspective and to perhaps indicate why seafarers remain divorced from public consciousness in the country, consider this: Just one Indian software company, Infosys, had, at the end of 2009, almost 110,000 employees- more than the total number of active Indians at sea.

We must be realistic: we can hardly expect, given these numbers, great public or political support for either seafarer or industry ‘causes’. It is equally presumptuous to assume that the criticality of the industry will dawn on the entire populace next Monday morning. In any case, there are two different issues here that need to be pushed: on one hand, broad industry commercial interests will need lobbyists and a proactive administration. Seafarer employment issues will have to be largely addressed in-house and within the industry.

Therein lies the rub.

We are not going to produce that additional 2% mariner number the Shipping Ministry targets by 2015-around 40,000 additional Indian mariners with the projected demand slated to grow 20%- by sitting on our hands. As things stand, we have no concerted plan that will get us within even spitting distance of such a number. We have no workable databases of existing seafarers, to begin with- but perhaps the INDOS one can be tweaked to reflect active seafarers. The industry does no research, besides making assumptions based on anecdote, of what will attract new talent; we don’t even know for sure what makes present seafarers tick. We do not even know how many of the present lot plan to sail for even the next contract with us- or anywhere else.

Come to think of it, we actually don’t know our seafarers very well, do we?

It is telling, in more ways than one, that whatever little research is being done on the much overused term- the ‘Human Element’- is being conducted in the West, whereas much of the mariner workforce comes from the East. This needs to change quickly: why can’t the Indian maritime industry do its own research and come up with its own ideas? Cultural and nationality based factors cannot be applied on a one size fits all basis- European HRD ideas, for example, often do not work too well in India. A pan Indian industry body funded by individual companies has a much better chance of success. It could research and promote the profession, disseminate best HRD practices, suggest initiatives for improvement in both the quantity and quality of fresh entrants and provide industry feedback and comment related to general seafarer calibre to training institutes.

It would provide Indian solutions that would, in all likelihood, make sense in the Indian market. (The first thing it would need to do, in my opinion, is to recommend to the industry that it stop using touts in manning or training and that it stops charging any ‘placement fee’ from any sailor, either officially or under the table.)

I am convinced that unless we-and I mean those in the industry in India- do much more in the human resources development space than just hire and fire (or, more likely, hire and hope), our ambitions of increasing Indian seafarer numbers will remain pipe dreams. Actually, our ability to maintain even present seafarer market share is a huge question mark in my mind- leave alone that overly ambitious 9 percent number.

Change will not come from the Government, mainly because seafarer numbers are small in India and so politicians can ignore us: I could house all those 75000 or so active mariners from across the country in one corner of a suburb of Mumbai and nobody would even notice.

Change, if we want it, has to come from within.


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