Shipping needs to play the transformation card more often if it wants success in attracting the much needed skilled youngsters into the industry.
I don’t believe we will have fleets of unmanned autonomous ships on the high seas for many many decades, so there’s whole generations of workers that will still need to be attracted to join the industry and to work onboard our complex connected assets.
As an industry, particularly in the West, we are struggling to resell ourselves as anything than a polluting, poorly paid, distant archaic industry that reeks of corruption, risk and criminalisation.
It is seen as an industry that enjoys trying to cheat against environmental regulations, is unsafe, resolutely asks to remain analogue and be left alone, abandon crews: sometimes even pushing them over a mental edge by failing to address their basic needs and concerns.
Those of us in the industry and watching it change know that the picture is not so black and white, it rarely is. There is another truth of course and it is one that should be used to push a new industry out of the ashes.
There’s a big difference between the age of Joseph Conrad and that of Captain Kirk, but in the middle of this is a new shipping inndustry, one where ”digitalisation” in all its forms is creating exciting new ideas, where people are actively looking for solutions to make shipping more sustainable.
Shipping is where digitalisation meet heavy industry, where the solid reality of heavy machinery and steel meets the database and virtual reality, and it is no good those of us who have had illustrious careers at sea telling school leavers around the world to come into an industry as if it is just the same as the 1980’s.
Nor should we conflate the issue of not having enough young men and women coming into shipping with a supposed reason for further reduction of crew onboard vessels and the (mistaken) belief that the world’s ships will soon be unmanned, autonomous and self-thinking.
That latter image has largely been the fault of the technology firms such as Wärtsilä, Rolls-Royce and Kongsberg in 2017 and 2018 as they battled over headlines in trade and national press, drawing eve more detailed images to show how the world might look if it took control of it.
The reality however is different, but it is none-the-less, I think, when one looks at the reality of digital tools, an attractive career proposition to school leavers in China, Philippines, India and elsewhere (including the west) that might otherwise ignore a career at sea.
Perhaps the message should be that a career at sea brings you face-to-face with the latest digital tools, systems and services that connect you with the largest regularly made man-made moving objects on the planet.
In a story of digital meets diesel and decarbonisation, the connected digitally skilled people we will need is set to increase. And by that I mean the kids that will be looking for work in the coming decade of change.
That ship managers are increasingly linking with their crews in a more digitally engaged manner is a more compelling story than any story we are currently dreaming up, if we are thinking about how to create an updated image to attract the e-farers of the digitally connected industry that is already here and expanding across the global fleet.
The china store
During Maritime Cyprus I interviewed Hing Chao, executive chairman of Hong Kong owner and manager Wah Kwong. I spoke to him about the need to get Chinese crews engaged in shipping.
Apart from showing my ignorance of the broad range of inter-cultural differences in such a huge country he told how maritime academies were increasingly having to seek school leavers in the inland provinces and cities rather than the coastal ones which have seen young men traditionally head off to sea but who now, due to rising affluence have many other career options ashore.
The difficulty is, he confided, was that it was getting more difficult to get the right people into the colleges and for companies such as his to then train up for a career as either crew or officers.
Wah Kwong is expanding its fleet, and will soon be looking for a further 800 seafarers, other Asian operators will be doing the same, as will operators from around the world, who will tap into the hopefully eternal pool of seafarers the Chinese, Indian and Filipino academies can produce, providing Asian youngsters choose to go there.
Our industry needs more officers and crew, and to attract the right young women and men, because women will be playing a bigger role here, we need to change our message and get our digitally savvy and Tec loving children into colleges to then have fit-for purpose educational and training.
And on a final note, while I was at the WISTA UK event at London International Shipping Week last month, it was interesting to hear how different words will attract either more young men or young women to apply for jobs. Shipping is not a man’s industry, so the language does not need to be based around that assumption. We need e-farers that are digitally aware, comfortable with technology and transformation, not just male.
(main photo courtesy of Muse Chocos and the IMO Day of the Seafarer photo library)