May 102008

Yet again, as Lloyds List reports from the Seafarers 2008 conference in Singapore, the shipping industry is renting cloth over the issue of manpower shortages. For the most part, the industry is worried about how to continmue to increae profits when it can’t adequately man the new ships which will drive those profits but  Captain Ravi Sinha of Thome Shipmanagement waved the red flag over the potential for accidents involving LNG carriers.

Captain Sinha points out that today’s LNG fleet, the first sector to suffer the impact of manning shortages, needs 1,098 officers today but in three years time, with a expected fleet of 384, there will be a need for 2,412 officers. The industry may have to choose between laying up ships, wasting a valuable hard asset, or lowering standards in order to put crews on ships.

As Captain Sinha warns in the Lloyds List report: ““The safety record for the LNG fleet has been excellent, but for how long?”

Cynics will argue that despite the intention of the IMOs MSC to avoid further reduction in standards, the needs of the industry to keep ships moving while, nevertheless, force a downward creep in standards and competency.

In fact, the manning shortage has developed almost in step with rising rates of ship casualties and the deaths and injuries of seafarers.  That might be coincidental, but one had a niggling feeling that might not be.

Of course, an industry with foresight would have realised that putting more hulls on the water means finding more people to put in them, but few would accuse the industry of the sin of thinking ahead.

Ole Stene of Aboitiz Jebsen Bulk Transport says that the 10,000 ships now being built will require 400,000 seafarers, describes it as ‘a frighting scenario’ and concludes that ‘the chickens have come home to roost’.

Many of those who were at sea in the 1970s might suggest that it’s taken nearly 40 years for those chickens to come home and have little sympathy. An industry in which seafarers often spent their entire career with one company they were proud to work for and to whom they were loyal, under a flag they were proud to sail under, indulged in exercises that betrayed that loyalty, some of which verged on the fraudlent. The bitterness of the memories of that time remain with older seafarers today.

That process eliminated what could be called the ‘infrastructure of loyality’, the infrastructure that desperately needs to be reinstated but which will be an uphill climb.

Today, the industry complains that seafarers shop around for the best paying jobs and don’t show loyalty to the company. What they are doing, of course, is to maximise the value of their assets, themselves, which, of course, is what the industry itself does and what it did so ruthlessly in the 70s.

There is, however, another sort of loyaly, loyalty to the industry itself, but this, too, is declining. The majority of seafarers today come from third world countries, poverty is the industry’s key recruiting agent. This workforce has its own agenda – to lift themselves away from poverty, make enough feed the family, put a roof over its head, build a house, set up a small business, establish financial security and go home. Its a similar mindset to immigrants to the United States who have little intention to remain permanently but will return to their home countries once they are financially secure. Once their agenda is met, typically by the time they are in their 50s and should be training their juniors, they leave the industry, and their experience, a valuable resource is lost.

A further element is that in some cases, this workforce sees little benefit in achieving a position of command responsibility. There is plentiful evidence that, for instance, Filipino seafarers, even if starting off as officer cadets, are responsibility adverse – their agenda can be met without the hardhsip and risk that responsibility brings.

There is a dissonance between the agenda of the majority of seafarera and the agenda of the companies that employ them that needs to be addressed.


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