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The Last Straw

The collective demands of STCW and Industry have today’s mariners (and the ones still to come) stretched to the limit, while leaving maritime educators no easy choices on what to do about it.

If you have been following along, then you also know that last week, I attended the Maritime Education Summit and the quarterly Merchant Marine Advisory Committee (MERPAC) meeting at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Read last week’s editorial and description of the meetings HERE. Being the nosey person that I am, I also spent some time over the course of three days getting the perspective of a variety of attendees on a host of related subjects. Aside from a little bit of grumbling from those who would have liked to have attended both meetings, there was common agreement from all that a lot of important work got done. By the time the conference broke up on Friday, it was also apparent that the business of MERPAC as it relates to STCW – and other important matters – has everything to do with maritime education everywhere. That’s not necessarily good news for everyone.

As a journalist and not a participant to either of the two conferences, I was free to shuttle back and forth between individual working group sessions. Perhaps the two most important sessions that I attended included the MERPAC comprehensive review of the STCW convention and code and then, over at the education summit, the Maritime Workforce Panel. Both venues, each in its own unique way, provided ample warning to those in attendance that the preparation of future mariners is probably about to change forever. For those involved only in the traditional American maritime academy educational system, this will involve shoehorning still more subject matter into a four-year education. Ultimately, it could extend that process to as much as five years.

As the planned review and revision of the STCW code moves forward, a number of provisions are on the table for discussion. Changes to the existing code will primarily involve advancements in technology and inconsistencies in the code itself. As many as 75 submissions for change are being discussed, and MERPAC will weigh in on all of them. And so far, the Coast Guard has been intent on listening to its MERPAC partners. As a general rule, MERPAC recommendations are given great weight in the decision process as the Coast Guard furthers the American agenda at IMO meetings. That is not expected to change. But faced with the formidable 27-nation EU voting block on certain issues, the shape of future STCW codes may not be as accommodating to U.S. needs as it once was.

There are additional challenges. For example, and at the Maritime Workforce Panel, it was clear that industry is not necessarily getting what they need from the American academies in terms of a suitably certificated mariner or perhaps one that is sufficiently schooled in a particular sector of the maritime industry. That’s not to say that the Academies are doing a bad job; far from it. Unfortunately, however, the increased demands of regulatory requirements, combined with a diverse set of employment opportunities are meeting head on to create an impossible scenario for maritime educators to craft a satisfactory solution. And, there are no easy answers.

Patrick Kelly of Kirby Inland Marine in particular provided ample reason for changes to curriculum on the undergraduate level and some leeway from the Coast Guard on the subject of applicable sea time for cadets trying to qualify for a Third Mate’s ticket while also steering themselves towards an increasingly lucrative career in the brown water and inland trades. Kelly led the crowded room through the difficulties of bringing along a newly graduated Third Mate into the world of inland towing – a place where Masters can bring home salaries exceeding $90,000 annually – where Kirby has already hired and trained as many as thirty of these professionals. It hasn’t been easy, even beyond the initial culture clash of college kids meeting home grown local talent for the first time, owing to the lack of emphasis and curriculum about the inland and brown water trades at the six state and one federal academies.

Today, Kirby even offers “cadet” slots on their towing vessels, but the question of where an interested student will find the time to learn in the real world when the Coast Guard won’t accept the on board time as “sea service” because of “tonnage” issues remains unanswered. And yet, the boat handling experience learned there is invaluable for any mariner and arguably provides a better training vehicle than the standard merchant vessel at sea. Others on the Maritime Workforce Panel, many from the various seagoing officer unions, bemoaned the lack of actual sea time on commercial platforms afforded to cadets while at school. The learning curve, they add, is steep once the state academy kids (in particular) step onto their first seagoing vessel after graduation. Meanwhile, and in Europe, regulators are making noise about not accepting U.S. certifications for mariners until the sea time requirement is ramped up significantly to match that which is commonplace in other places.

Jamming changes to classroom curriculum into already packed schedules and finding time and the platforms to put more cadets to sea for longer periods of time is proving to be difficult at best. In reality, it may prove to be impossible within the traditional, narrow four-year academy-based format. Today, cadets can pick and choose from a wide range of marine career choices; not just deep-sea employment, but offshore and supply boats, inland rivers, foreign flag berths and the list goes on and on. Getting the students ready for each and every one of these choices – both in terms of education and certifications – will ultimately prove to be problematic.

In another building on campus at MMA, MERPAC participants broke up into working groups to ponder complex issues related to how the rules will be shaped for years to come. One such proposal, emanating from Germany, would require specific advanced firefighting training for tanker officers, above and beyond BST and perhaps superseding the traditional advance firefighting curriculum. This, and twenty other proposals threaten to add still more course work for cadets and professional mariners alike, all but eliminating downtime during the educational process and vacation periods in between trips to sea. And the only requirements that might go away in the near term are the flashing light proficiency examinations and the need for celestial navigation curriculum. As a general statement, it certainly appeared to me that far more was being proposed to be added to the regulatory load than potentially would go away.

During the mind-numbing STCW review session, the scope of changes to the STCW code being considered was simply staggering. I briefly thought about listing all of them here for your inspection, but I’m guessing you have better things to do with the balance of your week than read the equivalent an inch of documents pertaining to regulatory minutia. Nevertheless, it would be good idea to follow along closely as the drama plays itself out.

I came away from last week’s meetings with two primary conclusions. First, the coming changes to the STCW codes will profoundly affect how we prepare mariners to go to sea in any capacity, here and abroad. As someone who last went to school about thirty years ago, I know that maritime education has changed significantly over the years. But the combined output of the education summit and MERPAC meetings made it painfully clear that still more changes are to come, and this time, it won’t take 29 years for it to happen. Anyone who doubts this reality just isn’t paying attention.

The second conclusion is probably even more important, especially here in the United States. It is clear that no longer will cadets graduate and be able to step onto any platform that they desire with full certifications to do so. We are clearly entering an age of specialization where someone starting out on tankers or LNG vessels is going to have to stay on that track. Changing horses in midstream is no longer an easy option, and if it is attempted, the recertification process could be a long and expensive one. Beyond this, the prospect of cramming an expanded curriculum to satisfy all industry segments and at the same time ramping up the at-sea training requirement to satisfy an increasingly intrusive international scrutiny of our processes cannot be particularly appealing to U.S. maritime educators. In the end, either or both goals may well be impossible to accomplish within a four-year window.

It is not all gloom and doom. But just as Mass. Maritime Academy is no longer ”your father’s maritime academy,” so too is the process of developing new talent changing everywhere. The worldwide shortage of ship’s officers, now approaching 33,000 mariners, is in reality even more acute than that. That’s because one can no longer insert a “round” generic mariner into a “square” industry specific hole. For today’s young mariners, however, the sky is the limit in terms of what they can do and where they can go to do it. Getting them ready to do all of that is the tricky part.

Finally, I was particularly impressed by the quality of work and earnest nature of the MERPAC members in attendance. For those of you toying with the idea of getting on the panel as a way to beef up your CV, then I’d suggest you join your local homeowner’s association instead. The demands of a MERPAC membership are many, and the reward to those who undertake this important work flies mostly under the RADAR. The maritime industry, on the other hand, derives great value from this group of volunteers. The jam-packed sessions last week were a real eye opener.

I wouldn’t have thought so, but maritime education and STCW compliance are a fascinating combination of real world issues. Still, I don’t envy the regulators and educators as they meld the requirements of one with the realities of the other. How that all comes together, Mr. Maritime Executive, is going to seriously impact your bottom line in the years to come. Those who fail to sit up and pay attention as this aspect of the maritime industry unfolds will pay a heavy price. And, that might just be the last straw. – MarEx

Joseph Keefe is the Editor-in-Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com. Join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group at by clicking http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/47685