November 16, 2012


Editorial by moi, published in the 'Maritime Matrix' last month

That confidence in shipping is at its lowest level in four years should come as no surprise. Nonetheless, shipping- much like life after a tragedy- will go on; trade is hardly going to stop next Monday. In fact, I tend to believe that the coming years are going to throw up interesting challenges and lucrative opportunities for ship managers. Competence, adaptability and nimbleness of foot will be rewarded handsomely, as will the critical ability to have the right people in the right place at the right time. On the flip side, the mediocre will perish in ignominy.

I say this because we sit at the cusp of a paradigm shift today. Regulatory requirements, especially environmental and human resource related, will continue to balloon, as will commercial pressure to shift to cheaper or alternate energy sources and low emission machinery. Consequently, navigation and engineering will both become even more complex, and so will the technical and operational demands on operators and managers, both ashore and afloat. Owners will ask ship managers to produce and retain a higher calibre of employees on ships and in shoreside offices to operate and manage the ship of the future safely, cleanly and cost-effectively.

Easier said than done, this, what with shipping struggling with issues of calibre and commitment of staff afloat and ashore. An existentialist threat, really, if one considers that alarm bells are already being rung because of insurance statistics that claim more accidents at sea are being caused by inexperienced or less than competent officers and crews. A tremendous opportunity, actually, for any ship management outfit that can get its ducks in a row and its basics right.

The thing is that- one glaring exception aside- we have done it all before. Over the years, transition from steam to diesel, incrementally complex machinery, computerisation in navigational and communication equipment, increasingly burdensome mandatory requirements and associated issues have been managed reasonably effectively by the industry. The exception is, of course, the management of our workforce at sea. As pressure mounts- it already has, for example in some developed specialist tanker trades- the imperative for ship managers to retain appropriately qualified, experienced and committed mariners will rise. Any organisation that cannot manage this effectively will probably self-destruct or become unprofitable. 

To thrive, ship management business models have to start moving beyond traditional revenue streams like body shopping. Forward thinking managers need to allocate resources towards aggressive and enlightened human resource development. Owners and managers that want to be positioned right must have a calibrated plan in place to find, employ and train suitable mariners for their fleets. There must be a transparent programme for their career development at sea- and, later, ashore. These are the first steps to motivation and retention. 

A firm that gets good employees to stay steals a march over the multitude automatically. Just putting warm bodies on flights will not do any longer, I am afraid, in a coming age when technical and operational expertise will be far more valued.

The ship manager that wants to take the future by the horns should quickly realise that a seafarer can be either a towering strength or a crippling weakness; by his own actions, the manager gets to choose which.

Thanks for reading.


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