March 23, 2015


Skills, seafarers and superintendents

Given the changes that have taken place in shipping since 2008, there is no reason to suppose that the management of its human resources would have remained the same. And to a great extent, changes have happened, but not always in expected ways.

It might have been possible to foresee for example the current wave of shipbroker consolidation given the supply/demand balance. The trend towards new financing and ownership structures might also suggest a continuing demand for shipmanagement staff as private equity and others look to buy in the staff to run their shiny new fleets.

More surprising is the strength of demand for experienced operations staff, particularly in the dry bulk sector, given that rates are near record lows. Even more unexpected is that having watched the decade-long ascent of Singapore, hotly pursued by Dubai, that the Lion State has become a victim of its own success.

A change in policy there means employers are desperate to hire locals and are required to prove they could not find them before gaining visas for foreign staff. As a result, the huge number of employers attracted there by low taxes and a business-friendly environment, are all fishing from the same pool.

At the same time recruiting western staff into the Middle East has become harder, despite its traditional allure. A combination of competition from other hubs and a shortage of western technical staff are cited, but more fundamentally, there is a feeling that Dubai isn’t really regarded as a ‘shipping hub’ by the shipmanagement or commercial community.

Chairman of Spinnaker Global, Phil Parry says these are people who like to be among their peers. “The move to Singapore over the last decade made sense, it was about being closer to the ships and the cargoes. Singapore was very successful in luring talent and creating a community,” he says.

‘Unemployment is high, yet skills and experience are in short supply’ is the mantra but though it wasn’t coined about shipping, it reflects a lack of investment in training that is as true here as anywhere. There are more university graduates than ever, many of them out of work, though this is changing in those economies that are now lifting out of the recession. The shortage remains in skilled personnel.

“Lack of good leaders and a lack of management skills are not unique to shipping but poor leadership does seem to be an issue that’s coming up time and again,” Parry says. “We are starting to change and to recognise that shipping needs to invest more in developing its people and identifying those with the motivation and capacity to lead, but it’s slow.”

A shortage in supply of shoreside staff is a newer phenomenon compared to the better-known trend of shortages in seagoing staff. Parry has sat on the steering committee of the BIMCO/ISF manpower survey since 2005. In 2010 it found the worldwide supply of officers was 624,000 versus demand of 637,000. This he notes was described as ‘near equilibrium’.

“All the advice to employers is to expect the seafaring officer labour supply situation to worsen with a knock-on impact on the shore-side pipeline,” he says. The seafarer supply situation in the developed world is well known, Parry says, but nevertheless “current European-based vacancies are pretty evenly divided between technical and white collar roles.”

And the UK has its own problem in stopping the draining away of talent. “For superintendent positions in the UK, we can generally fill the roles we have, but there aren’t enough people around in general and employers don’t have the luxury of fulsome shortlists to choose from. The UK has a similar problem to Singapore in that we need to show there is no European Union passport holder available to do the job before we can hire a non-EU national.”

Parry sees no major changes to the UK maritime scene ‘it’s got no worse than in the last 10 years, put it that way’. Glasgow remains an important centre as does the North East, but in London many offices are small, driven by tonnage tax requirements, rather than full service operations.

Home-grown seafaring capacity continues to dwindle, with the loss from retirements and moves ashore at the top outweighing inflows at the bottom. Non-Europeans are needed to fill what is becoming a shortage occupation. The more subtle change is to skills profile and while careful not to bash the industry that supports him, Parry says it is only just beginning to realise the logic.

“We hear about skills decline and today’s chief engineers being less experienced technically. It’s possibly true, but the equipment is allowing that. But, in terms of leadership and management, this is an industry where those skills are in critically short supply due to inadequate investment in training and personal development.”

Too many employers he says waste time trying to get people better at their areas of weakness rather than developing their natural talents into real strengths. “It’s far better to leave a good commercial person in a commercial role than to promote them into a management role where they will flounder and the same goes for technical people.”

This means employers thinking about career paths and structures that allow them to reward high performing ‘technicians’ with, for example, management-level benefits and status, rather than promoting them.

But he says the same companies that insist that today’s seafarers aren’t what they used to be also insist that they must have master mariners and chief engineers ashore in superintendent jobs. Whether that really is essential or whether much of the imperative is about perceived credibility is open to question.

“They say ‘officers won’t take orders from people who haven’t sailed as master or chief’, but they will. They do so every day. It all depends what the job description is of the person giving the orders and what the order is about,” he explains.

If they are to second-guess the Captain, they need to know about being a captain but Parry says so much of the superintendent’s job as currently defined is not about that.

“There are companies out there who are redefining roles, carving out supporting roles, separating management from technical responsibilities and creating centres of excellence to house their technically superb former captains and chief engineers. There’s no question that both those with management aptitude and those who really did excel at sea can distribute good advice to their fleet,” he says. “But all too often ‘command and control’ people are put in management positions where they demotivate and reduce morale. This is not good enough in a market where people can very easily vote with their feet.”

Spinnaker carried out a study in 2008 and found that 85% of operations jobs did not require or did not hire former seafarers. The vast majority of operations staff, graduates or otherwise, learnt their trade on the job.

“More recently however, we have seen an increase in demand from employers for seafaring experience in their operations departments. As fleets get larger and long term cargo business becomes more the trading norm, so owner operators need to deliver brilliant customer service to their charterer customers and this involves good know-how at load and discharge.”

“Someone said recently that there are two ‘C’s for 2015; commoditisation of freight and consolidation. To that I would add ‘corporatisation’, by which I mean shipping clients looking for staff with corporate styles who get compliance, process, procedure, professionalism and good leadership.”

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