Global maritime transport has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic: supply chains, shipping networks, port operations and the supply of labour have all been disrupted. With most economies experiencing no growth in 2020, the industry’s future is uncertain. I explore some of the structural issues that affected the industry workforce pre-pandemic. Many of these have become more acute over the past 18 months. I believe it is time to batten down the hatches and tackle the issues head on to improve the industry’s future prospects.
My research focuses on the social and human elements of shipping. I have researched and written a lot about seafarers, covering their working conditions and employment. I have also explored structural issues affecting supply and demand in the labour market for seafarers. Some of my findings also touch on issues of sustainability within shipping and maritime management.
An industry all at sea
The current view across the industry is that there is a shortage of qualified seafarers.
To become an officer, it is necessary to train for a number of years, almost to degree level, in order to gain the Certificate of Competency. The structure is very hierarchical, with many officer ranks including Chief, Second and Third officers, Captain in the deck department, and Chief Engineer to Fourth Engineer in the engine department. Typically, there is one person occupying each rank onboard, all in a linear hierarchical relationship to each other.
The perceived shortage concerns the supply of seafaring officers as opposed to seafaring ratings. When I looked at data released from national governments, I found that there is actually an oversupply of junior officers. In fact, the problem develops because there is a constant stream of newly certified seafarers.
There are more newly qualified officers, especially in key labour supply countries such as the Philippines, than there are entry-level jobs. The shortage of labour supply only becomes apparent further up the ranks. Many new recruits who secure entry-level officer jobs do not progress along the career ladder; some decide that life on the ocean wave is not for them as the absence from family and friends hit home hard.
The linear hierarchy exacerbates this problem. The oversupply at the lower ranks, causes a shortage further up the chain of seniority. Insufficient numbers of recruits are climbing the ladder and progressing to become senior officer. Ironically, the career structure itself is causing the shortage.
To cite an example; ten ships will each require a Captain, First Officer, Second Officer, Third Officer and Chief Engineer. There may be 20 Third Officers available for work but only ten are required. If the other ten leave the industry because they cannot find work and, later on, some of the Third Officers who did find work leave, there will be a shortage of officers available for Second Officer positions.
Running out of steam
Another issue facing the industry is fatigue.
To reduce costs, the number of crew operating onboard is at an absolute minimum, yet there is always plenty to do during a passage. People are getting worn out. One UK Marine Accident Investigation Board study revealed that 82% of the recorded groundings and collisions occurring between 0000 and 0600 hours are caused by fatigue. While fatigue is not a new issue, in recent years, the industry’s awareness of it has increased.
According to the regulations, the working week onboard is a maximum of 72 hours. Crew members must have a minimum of ten hours rest a day. In practice, crews are working 12 to 14 hours per day.
It can be worse when the vessel is docked in port, as there is often paperwork such as customs documentation to process, inspections and cargo operations to monitor. In practice this is difficult to enforce. Personnel are required to record their work and rest time, but it is impossible to verify these records. We know that the falsification of records takes place.
It can be tempting to think that adopting more technology will help solve the problem. Conversely, it can make it worse. Once new technology is adopted, this often leads to a cut in crew numbers. Even with technology, some jobs have to be done manually: port formalities, record keeping and inspections. In fact, technology can lead to an increase in workload for some and it can make some jobs more physically demanding.
High and dry
Another issue relates to the structure of training.
Historically, senior officers mentored junior officers. Junior crew members are supposed to receive on the job training and also take an exam. Juggling a heavy workload and fatigue issues have meant experienced crew members have less time for mentoring and training cadets and trainee officers. While each junior crew member is supposed to have a specific training plan, these are rarely scrutinised by regulators. In reality, junior crew members can undergo no on-the-job training but still pass the final exam. The Certificate of Competency is issued based on exam performance and not completion of on the job training.
Some have argued that the crew numbers should be increased to tackle the fatigue issues; especially as this could open up for more opportunities to employ junior officers, moving away from the linear hierarchical structure into a pyramid. This could also solve the shortage of seafarers at senior ranks. At present the industry has been reluctant to increase crew numbers as it would raise costs too and very few shipping companies are willing to incur these additional costs. A few more reputable companies are taking extra officers on board, seeking to gain a competitive advantage by demonstrating best practice.
A shot across the bows
A perfect storm is brewing for the industry. There is pressure on the supply of qualified and experienced senior officers. Crews at sea are suffering from fatigue on the job, increasing the potential for accidents and collisions. The provision of on the job training is inconsistent. This has resulted in greater deviance from the regulatory norms; with demand for shipping increasing, the industry is sailing close to the wind.
The pandemic has added more pressure. There has been huge demand to transport goods across the globe. It has been difficult to do crew changes and to move people around. Crews have been at sea much longer than they would usually have been under normal circumstances. This has made the problem of fatigue more acute. If we do not address these issues now, the long-term sustainability of the industry is in doubt.