The Future of the Modern Seafarers’ Profession
Shipping and seafarers keep world commerce and trade running. There are over 50,000 merchant ships trading internationally, transporting every kind of cargo. Around 90 percent of everything we see around us has traveled by sea at some point in its life, carried by the international shipping industry. It brings benefits to people across the world and it is the most efficient transport mode when large amounts of manufactured items or bulk transport of raw material needs to be moved around.
Every hour of every day, thousands of commercial ships are traveling the world, transporting goods and people across oceans and seas. Those ships don’t travel on their own but are run by over a million seafarers, from nearly every country of the world. The seafarers make sure that the operations are run smoothly, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Shipping is an important source of direct as well as indirect employment in Europe and the industry continues to play a key role in European trade and business. The sector employs around 640,000 people, and with a high $104,000-per-worker productivity, it contributes an above-average amount to Europe’s GDP for each worker employed.
Seafaring is one the world’s oldest professions. In the past, a seafarer's career usually started at sea on board a ship, where youths at very early age were introduced to the work culture of shipping. The skills needs changed slowly, and the profession was learned while working, when the expertise was passed on from experienced seafarers to apprentices. Later the development of different ships and technological advances demanded a higher level of education. Nautical education started to be offered in schools on shore, in addition to a variety of subjects relevant to the safe operation of ships.
Over the past half century, employment patterns have changed radically. The two concrete challenges the seafarers’ profession faces today (and even more so in the future) are 1) a shortage in the supply of skilled seafarers worldwide and 2) predicting future skills needs due to digitalization. There is a need of continued efforts to invest in the skills required for the changing needs of the ships in the future. A lot of pressure is put on the current and future maritime education and training. It should be high quality and visible to attract good students, produce graduates with appropriate and needed competences and at the same time be able to respond to new and changing training needs quickly.
The other big challenge is to predict the future skills needs, especially between now and the time of increased automation. We can be sure that the skillsets and training needs required both in the immediate, medium term and long term future of the shipping industry will be different than today. An additional challenge then might be that other sectors will be competing over the same skilled people as the shipping sector. However, this also an opportunity and shows that the future skills needs in the maritime sector can be useful elsewhere, giving flexibility to individual career paths.
With the increasing digitalization and automation of the shipping industry, the future seafarer must master new technology as well as good seamanship. The ships of the future are based on advanced technology at all levels, and will require different and more technically advanced knowledge and expertise than today’s shipping – be it on board and on shore. The developments of increasing digitalization and automation may offer different and improved job opportunities for the modern seafarers, as instead of staying at sea for months, they can have a job on shore. New kinds of jobs on shore might also give women more opportunities to pursue a career in the shipping industry.
The seafarers’ profession may be undergoing a considerable change from a technological perspective, but it will continue to play a vital role in the water transportation of international trade also in the future, on and off shore.
The European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA) is a trade association representing the national shipowners’ associations of the EU and Norway.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.