Remembering the Good Old Days: and Keeping Our Eyes on the Ball

Just one short year ago, the hottest issue on the plate of most ocean shipping managers was the chronic shortage of qualified mariners and industry efforts to recruit, retain and train those individuals. Where are we today?

I hesitate to draw your attention away from the gloom and doom of today’s current events, but indulge me for a moment as we take a trip back down memory lane. January of 2008 (comparatively a happier time for everyone, so it seems) found shipping companies and offshore operators clamoring to figure out the best possible way to recruit, retain, adequately compensate and otherwise keep trained a limited workforce of qualified mariners. Today, of course, there seems to be some equally pressing matters at hand and the temptation to put aside the task of ensuring a competent and content offshore workforce must be overwhelming. That, however, would be a serious mistake.

The first two weeks of the New Year brings news on all maritime fronts and much of it affecting the very mariners that get the ships, workboats, offshore rigs and everything else from point “A” to point “B.” The Master of the 81,000 dwt tanker Prestige became the latest poster child for the criminalization of mariners after his ship broke apart and sank off the coast of Spain in 2002. He spent 83 days in prison and was only released upon payment of bail amounting to Euro3m. Elsewhere, maritime organizations are expressing outrage at the jailing of two mariners that have been held in Korea since then for more than 400 days despite being cleared by a Korean court in June 2008 of responsibility for a “collision” and ensuing pollution. American mariners are reporting significant delays to their documentation due to “bottlenecks” at the new National Maritime Center (NMC) in West Virginia and the global economic slowdown has one or two shipping companies on the ropes and more than 210 container ships idled. And, is there really any need to talk about the piracy problem off the coast of Somalia?

As I digest the news on a daily basis, my thoughts have turned to the global effort to ensure that enough mariners are available to man the world’s fleets. This necessary goal had gained serious steam in the past two years – on many fronts – and was beginning to yield real dividends. But as I also saw as much as 4 percent of the world’s containerships go idle, I also wondered when (a.) the demand for mariners would dip below the available pool, especially if the global economic crisis worsens and (b.) were we headed back to the bad old days when mariners “took what they could get, kept their mouth shut, and were darn glad to get it.” I don’t think we’ve reached either metric just yet, but both situations could very well become a reality. Having lived through a similar situation in the early 1980’s, I can assure you that it was not a pleasant time to be a professional mariner.

There is good news: I informally polled more than one industry training provider this week. At this point, demand for mariner training apparently remains strong. Over at the NMC, with the local REC’s now consolidated into a centralized format, the Coast Guard continues to struggle (with varying degrees of success) to keep up with the volume of mariner documentation needs. Apparently, there are plenty of people who still want to go to sea.

As a general statement, it is my opinion that how we treat mariners today will directly impact the condition of shipping companies and offshore operators at the point that the current downturn abates. This is no time to backtrack on the considerable progress made to date, nor is it time to stop moving forward on any number of related fronts. These include the protection of seafarers – both at sea on the job and in the courts when they come ashore – the improvement of living conditions for these people, streamlining the process through which these people secure the documentation necessary to make a living and also ensuring that they are both adequately trained and compensated for the considerable hardship involved in a remote, dangerous and industrial environment.

To today’s Maritime Executives, I say: Go ahead and sharpen those pencils and improve the bottom line. Set about the hard work involved with remaining solvent in as tough an economic climate as most of us can remember. Along the way, remember that your assets are ultimately in the hands of your mariners. In the final analysis, mariners will be as important to the turnaround as a price break on your P&I premium or lower cost bunkers.

This afternoon, maritime operators and managers alike are (perhaps) finishing this column and reluctantly turning their attention back to the business at hand. They will try to stay one step ahead and outguess a difficult charter market, perhaps positioning tonnage to best meet flagging demand – and yes – maybe laying up one or two ships in an effort to weather the considerable economic storm. For my part, I’m wondering who will still be around to climb the gangway when those ships go back into service. We’ll soon find out. – MarEx.

Joseph Keefe is the Managing Editor of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with questions and/or comments on this or any other article in this e-newsletter at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com.