September 22, 2011

The Seafarer Shortage: Lost and Found

Whatever happened to the desperate seafarer shortage shipping was jumping up and down about just two years ago?

When I hear the industry, their spin is that the recession is what happened, and that shortage concerns will rise again once the global economy stabilises. That is a lie.  Or, rephrasing the last sentence more charitably, those who say this are either clueless, incompetent or malign. Either they do not know (remember that they failed to predict demand even two years ahead last time.) Or, they know everything and promote the myth to try to flood the market with mariners that they will not pay an extra dime for.

Let us take just the last two years. In 2009, a manning report put out by a leading British consultancy said that there would be a shortage of 33000 officers at sea in that year, and that this figure would reach 42700 by 2013. This despite the fact that, months earlier, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression had already hit us. The single largest bankruptcy in US history -Lehmann Brothers, with 600 billion dollars in assets- had already happened. National governments were bailing out banks and stock and housing markets had tanked in many countries. People were already talking about sovereign default. Did the consultancy that threw out seafarer shortage numbers honestly think that an industry directly dependant on the health of the global economy would remain insulated by the mayhem instead of being badly hit by it? Forget a drop in manpower demand; their figures suggest some fancy extrapolation done based on airy-fairy projections made during the boom years of the mid 2000's.

If this columnist could recognise the warning signs in June 2008 (Monster's Maritime Ball, followed by another piece 'Preparing for the end of the boom' in September, both published here), why is it that an internationally known and respected consultancy, with massive resources at its disposal, was blind? Were they incompetent, clueless or malignant?

Similar numbers of seafarer shortage were disgorged by commercial entities across the shipping spectrum in those times. Educational and training establishments used them to lure teenagers into the dying profession. Shipmanagers used them to panic ship owners by projecting escalated salaries- and asking them to demand that their governments find a way to dramatically increase mariner numbers.  The fraud (or incompetence or malignancy or cluelessness) went all the way to the IMO, which launched a 'Go To Sea' campaign in November 2008 to attract entrants to the shipping industry. Three months later, at a BIMCO, ICS/ISF, INTERCARGO and INTERTANKO meeting under the Secretary-General on 30 March 2009- the so called 'Round Table'- everybody "agreed that the shortage of seafarers was the biggest issue for shipping and further agreed to intensify their efforts in support of this worthy cause."

Biggest issue, eh? So alarming that the ITF announced just last month- two years later- that the International Bargaining Forum- made up of the ITF and the Joint Negotiating Group of employers- had met in Miami where, "the conclusion, which has been hard fought by both sides" resulted in this deal: Seafarers will be grudgingly given a 2% wage increase in 2012, with 2.5% and 3 % further increases in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Dave Heindel, Chair of the ITF Seafarers’ Section, said, probably defending the niggardly increments agreed upon, “The collapse in the world financial market has led to employers wanting to minimise their cost increases in difficult times and has put pressure on those who represent the seafarers to understand this financial situation."

Miami, eh? I wonder how much that jaunt cost per seafarer represented, and whether that 2% was a worthwhile outcome for anybody except the well-junketed members of the International Bargaining Forum itself.  Whatever, the IBF agreement shows me more clearly than fudged numbers ever will where the supply and demand game actually lies today.
Meanwhile, no ships will stop because we do not have enough certified bodies aboard. None did in the boom days, an excellent indication of the lies we were told, so none will now that the heydays have spectacularly ended.

For the mariner, the takeaway from this carnival- or carnage- is that the industry and the IMO cannot be trusted with projected demand figures. (They cannot be trusted to handle piracy, criminalisation et al either, so this is hardly surprising).

The seafarer is warned that a time will come in the next year or two, or once the global crisis subsides, when this spin will start again. Everybody will resume jumping up and down bemoaning the shortage of qualified and experienced men and women at sea. The entire industry, almost without exception, will regurgitate grossly inflated numbers of seafarer demand put out by some consultancy or the other. Incompetence, cluelessness and malignancy will resurface to tell us that seafaring is the 'career of choice' once again. Perhaps the IMO will be urged to put its previous embarrassments aside and start another "Go To Sea" campaign. Respected industry bodies and other emperors with no clothes will join the bandwagon, screaming at us from the rooftops. Something like, "Two millions seafarers required by 2017!"

And we will start cheating kids again, enticing them to join- or remain in- the profession. See the shortage numbers? Salaries are bound to shoot up like Marilyn's skirt in the breeze! You sailors have it made! There is a shortage of millions of seafarers!"

"The IMO says so!!"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very Good analysis. I tried my best to continue reading till the end just because of the good analysis done. Although the NOT SO SIMPLE ENGLISH was trying its best to make me just click the CLOSE or EXIT button. I bet a lot many would have done the same and not even bothered to write a comment. This article needs to be put in SIMPLE SEAFARER ENGLISH. An excellent article.
Mr. Sam Mathews