Making Careers at Sea More Attractive

Alastair Fischbacher
Alastair Fischbacher

Published Jun 25, 2015 8:10 PM by The Maritime Executive

By Alastair Fischbacher, The Sustainable Shipping Initiative 

In many countries and particularly in the West, the popularity of seafaring as a career option has been in decline. A Drewry report that was released this week highlighted that shipping will require an additional 42,500 officers by 2019. While the report’s overarching message positively observes that the persistent shortage of officer crew is receding, this is still a significant deficit and raises the longer-term question of how we attract and retain talented crews. 

The romanticism of a career at sea is arguably gone. Today’s mobile society, where people have more opportunities to travel for leisure as well as for work, means that there are more ways to “see the world.” At the same time, shore leave while in port is increasingly limited due to quicker port turnarounds and increasingly stringent security and visa requirements. 

Combine this with a lifestyle where seafarers are usually away from home for long-periods of time, working seven day weeks and often with intermittent access to digital communications and you have a hard sell to the most connected, consumerist generation in history. 

You could say that seafaring suffers from an image problem. Unfortunately, the risks associated with piracy have propelled seafaring into the public eye -even Hollywood. Similarly the trend towards criminalisation of seafarers in the event of maritime accidents has affected its attractiveness. 

However, I challenge whether there is enough mainstream knowledge about shipping and seafaring for image itself to be the issue. Instead, I think part of the problem is public awareness, understanding of seafaring in its entirety and recognition of seafaring as a worthwhile career, which is why it is great that this year’s IMO Day of the Seafarer campaign is addressing this. 

As the IMO Secretary-General, Koji Sekimizu, said this year, maritime education and training are "essential for the long-term sustainability of the sector, both at sea and on shore." It is for this reason that SSI is working with Southampton Solent University to conduct a phased program which will research and document the issues associated with the low profile of the shipping industry. This will attempt to better understand the perspective that young people and their families from different countries have on maritime careers so that these learnings can be shared and responded to more widely. 

Shipping still has an attractive proposition as a career. The sophistication of technology on board vessels, for example, as well as the introduction of new operational innovations, is creating new demands on the skills of the officers and crews particularly in IT, communications and engineering. There is plenty of information that can be delivered around the variety of roles on board ships, the excitement of working in often extreme or unpredictable operational environments and on board diverse ships or on varying trades. 

However, if shipping is to put more energy behind attracting talent into seafaring, it needs to deliver on its promises. Providing good pay and conditions as well as investing in training and development are absolutely fundamental, despite the wider squeezes on operators’ profitability in the current climate. 

While there are many operators who recognise the value of their seafarers and reflect this in the way that they are treated, we are all aware that this is not universally the case. Creating a more level playing field through greater global standardisation on seafarer conditions could help to support its attractiveness as well as retaining and motivating current seafarers. 

As we join the shipping community on the IMO’s Day of the Seafarer, we firmly believe that the industry has a lot to offer. By working collectively on a journey of shared education and by making mutual and positive commitments to improve its proposition, we hope that more people will embrace a fulfilling career at sea in the future, as many of us have done before.