June 19, 2014

Deja Boo.

It must be that that time of the decade once again; after approximately five years, stories about future officer shortages are starting to resurface once again. Coming up next, no doubt, will be masterfully written documents on what shipping must do to fill this presumed gap. These documents will, in the end, be useless, because shipping will only do again what it has always done- find the cheapest way to man its ships.

Drewry has recently published its “Manning 2014 Annual Report”, which says that the present assumed shortfall of 19,000 officers (where has the number come from? Are hundreds of ships laid up because they can’t meet minimum manning requirements??) will rise to almost 22,000 in three years. Perhaps because the report caters to an industry that is focused- to the point of obsession-on cost cutting, Drewry MD Nigel Gardiner said, “Manning costs look set to come under renewed upward pressure, putting a further squeeze on profitability unless owners are able to push freight rates higher." Particularly hit, the report adds, will be specialised vessels like LNGs. The availability of senior engineers across segments, shorter tours and ‘increased benefits’ to seamen (which ones??) are said to be other issues of concern to ship owners.

(Somebody should really compile statistics- in India, at least- of all those who have paid through their noses for Pre Sea training and have not been able to secure an on-board training berth for years. This is how we are gearing up for that presumed officer shortage.)

Here’s what I wrote a couple of years ago in this same column- “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”.  

Deja Boo! (A term I just coined. It means: trying to scare somebody with a story he has heard before.)

As far as I am concerned, all such reports are suspect and- more importantly- eventually useless. Alarming officer shortage statistics were put out from about 2005 onwards; the numbers seemed to rise every month. If the industry actually believed those reports, it should have been employing and training tens of thousands of future officers. Since it did nothing of the sort, then the inference I make is that either it did not believe such reports or that it believed them but did not see a problem because it had its usual Plan A all ready and fired up- find cheaper officers and/or reduce manning levels. 

Besides, these officer shortage tales, however well-intentioned or well compiled they may be, end up feeding a complex system of continuing fraud that is perpetuated- in India at least- against those who want to go out to sea. Training establishments will quote, once again, huge ‘officer shortage’ statistics to lure the innocent. Many officials in ownership or management firms will continue to take money under the table in return for putting these cadets out at sea. And, the low calibre, poor language and low motivation of many of these cadets will continue to guarantee that they never will make good officers- even if squeeze through their competency exams.

That is a point often forgotten in the numbers game; that the industry needs efficient and motivated officers, not just certified warm bodies. As things stand, only owners or management setups that train cadets and absorb all of them in their fleets have a chance in hell of achieving this.

Of course there is no shortage of ratings, and analysts will have us believe that the International Bargaining Forum (IBF, made up of the ITF and the maritime employers’ Joint Negotiation Group) works well to ensure that wages are well-negotiated and decent supply is continued. The same IBF has just concluded an agreement for three years, by the way; ratings’ wages will rise at a princely rate of 1% in 2015, 2% in 2016 and 3.5% in 2017.

In any other industry, a proposal for such a niggardly wage increment would cause hysterical reactions, but not in shipping. Here, it is survival of the cheapest and to hell with the seamen. We will worry about the risk that low quality of manpower poses later. Perhaps we can meet in Geneva or Bali to discuss this.

So beware seamen and wannabe seamen. Incompetent or malevolent statistics that-to quote myself again, sorry- “promote the myth and try to flood the market with mariners that ship owners will not pay an extra dime for” should be taken with a big pinch of sea-salt. 

The industry does not have to pay surplus officers anything if they sit at home jobless. Pushing the story of seafarer shortage is, therefore, to its advantage and to your detriment.


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