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March 28, 2014

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Think seafarers have a hard life? Try being a superintendent

We know that seafarers have a difficult job because we hear about it on a daily basis. No-one disagrees that it can be a dangerous life onboard ship, separated from friends and family for months at a time and working in harsh environments with numbers stripped to the bone.

On top of the physical and day-to-day risks, there is the other curse of the mariner’s life: paperwork. A recent study by the Danish Maritime Authority found that its country’s seafarers were spending up to 20% of their time on tasks they deemed an administrative burden, a figure that was half that for employees in land-based offices.

But while our sympathy and respect for seafarers is automatic, the same is not always true for their opposite number, the shore-based superintendent. Measured by the same criteria as a seafarer, the super’s job is a cushy posting, but in terms of the demands made on them, there are more similarities than first appear.

Kuba Szymanski, Secretary General of InterManager says the root problem is that the super’s job is not well enough understood.

“Everybody in shipmanagement has at one stage had some dealings with a superintendent so there is a superficial understanding of what they do. The problem is that the job is just as widely understood as it is misunderstood,” he says.

Technical supers who run ships day to day are invariably ex-engine room, often chief engineers, while ex-deck officers tend to work in marine or fleet operations. There are exceptions; the Greek model favours naval architects as superintendents whose knowledge may be more theoretical than practical.

“Superintendents are recruited from the pool of chief engineers which is excellent idea as these guys are very resilient, they have a can-do attitude and sound technical brains,” Szymanski continues. “But the problem is that a technical superintendent is not expected to roll up their sleeves and dive into the crank space. He is expected to facilitate, to organise, to motivate, to monitor and to sign off. These are not necessarily the virtues of the average chief engineer.”

This micro-management, so vital in their former role, is less valuable in their new job, which revolves more around bigger picture issues, being able to choose the right people for the job, motivating staff in order to retain them as well as mentoring existing staff.

We also spoke to a former shipmanager for a tanker operator, who preferred to be known as ‘Sam’. He agrees that supers tend to be ‘engine rather than deck’ oriented.

“There are a lot more superintendents ashore today that have come up as third, second or chief engineer and then come into the office as superintendents rather than from the navigational side,” he says. “These are people who are quite happy dealing with machinery, planned maintenance, spare parts and lube oil requirements, but the navigational aspect can be somewhat of a black art.”

Commercial pressure means that what resources there are with command or navigational experience can be thinly spread across a fleet.

“I was very fortunate to work for a quality shipmanagement organisation where a superintendent had probably a maximum of four ships to look after. If you compare that with companies that are chasing volume, then a superintendent could have eight to 10 vessels reporting to them,” Sam says.

“With half that number of ships to run, my inbox was easily 150-200 emails a day to sift and sort through, about spares, maintenance or provisions along with operational and commercial issues like ETA or any delays, that had to be passed on to the charterers or operators of the vessel.”

In addition to such commercial drivers, what supers share with their salty colleagues is pressure; to comply with regulation and in terms of the administration burden.

Szymanski says the super’s role is often to manage the tensions between commercial demands and safety, persuading commercial staff that a long term solution is better than a quick fix even if the latter is the cheaper option. But he agrees the real enemy is paperwork.

“It is probably the most hated part of the job; procedures for the sake of procedures not for the sake of safety or efficiency.”

Sam agrees that a large part of the job was managing the paper-trail. Reporting requirements increased markedly with the introduction of the ISM Code, which was enacted in the 1990s, with the intention of bringing managers and operators up to a certain standard of operational expertise and capability.

“In practice that wasn’t necessarily the case, but I was fortunate enough to work in an organisation where the requirements of the ISM Code were observed and we also set a lot of objectives, KPIs and targets for shipboard and shore-based operations that took us above this minimum requirement. But it was still very much paper-driven.”

Meeting the standards of the Code, implemented into specific company processes and procedures, required weekly and monthly reporting within the company’s Safety Management System to maintain the ship’s own Safety Management Certificate and the company’s Document of Compliance. All were subject to audit by the applicable Recognised Organisation of the vessel’s flag state, both in the office and onboard the ship.

Sam’s former employer was a tanker operator, meaning he had to ensure his ships were compliant with SIRE requirements and managed within the company’s TMSA assessments too. Without a valid six-monthly SIRE inspection in the database, tankers are at a risk of becoming commercially unviable. In addition, SIRE’s own inspection findings and the content of the inspection report, once reviewed by an oil major, could result in a refusal to charter a particular vessel, due to a High Risk Observation, or a trend in the number of observations noted on a particular vessel, or group of vessels managed by a particular company.

“It seems obvious that if we can deliver efficiencies around navigation, navigational supplies and to a certain extent compliance with flag and port state control, vetting and inspection compliance then that would clearly be a huge burden lifted,” he says.

As unwieldy as the current situation appears, the next Holy Grail is operational efficiency, driven by the need to generate enough savings across multiple areas of operation to attract a charterer when choice of tonnage is wide. Inevitably the requirement of managing the additional data is falling on supers running ships day to day.

Sam recalls a degree of basic environmental and energy efficiency reporting “that really kicked up when the ECA requirements on sulfur emissions came in. We were probably reporting weekly on energy efficiency and some basic kind of data, but at the time I don’t believe we were actively analysing it and saying this was an area where there is scope for improvement in terms of financial efficiency.”

Szymanski says supers and managers need to think laterally to work with this data while continuing to fulfil their day jobs. “Supers are mostly doers but this requires thinkers. There is a need to see the bigger picture and it would help us here. Probably the best solution for a super would be to gather individuals who could do this work for him and for him to manage the process rather than attempt to add it to his daily tasks,” he says.

But as a cheerleader for the sector, he disagrees that shipmanagers and superintendents suffer with outdated working practices. Or perhaps they do, but have learned to work around them.

“If the kind of resilience displayed in a shipping company was achieved in the IT sector or car making or airline industry, they would be singing and dancing about it. Ships and technical departments are all populated by individuals with can-do attitudes, goal-orientated solution-seekers. The kind of people who like to be part of the solution are rarely part of the problem.”

Ends

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