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Future-Proofing Merchant Mariners

In a fast-changing world, maritime academies adapt to upskill both their students and themselves.

training
Bridge simulator at the STAR Center (courtesy STAR Center)

Published Oct 3, 2021 3:04 PM by Mia Bennett

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2021 edition.)

With declarations that the age of unmanned navigation is upon us, merchant mariners may worry that they’ll soon be unemployed. Yet as shipping technology evolves, they’re likely to find themselves in need of retraining rather than out of a job. To burnish their skills, many turn to maritime academies.

Since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, governments of oceangoing nations such as the U.S., U.K., Norway and Singapore have established specialized institutions to ensure a supply of well-trained seafarers. The U.S. founded its first maritime academy, the State University of New York (SUNY) Maritime College, in 1874. Since then, dozens of other programs have been set up to train new generations of maritime officers.

Many are located along the Gulf of Mexico in places like Texas, where Lamar University offers a master’s degree in Port and Terminal Management. Erik Stromberg, Executive Director of Lamar’s Center for Advances in Port Management, described the program as “unique in the hemisphere in that it provides a fully online, advanced education program targeting the needs of up-and-coming port and marine terminal professionals as well as working professionals in related occupations who aspire to leadership roles in the port and marine terminal operating industry.” Opportunities for graduates exist not only in the public port sector but also in the private terminal-operating industry.

Florida is another state where numerous maritime training programs can be found. With 1,350 miles of shoreline, some of the country’s best natural harbors and a rich shipping heritage, it’s an ideal place to attract students looking to burnish their credentials.

In Dania Beach, just south of Fort Lauderdale, STAR Center (Simulation, Training, Assessment and Research) offers both deck and engine training for merchant mariners. The organization, which the U.S. Secretary of Transportation designated as a 2021 Center of Excellence for Domestic Maritime Workforce Training and Education, specializes in training American Maritime Officers operating vessels on the deep sea, Great Lakes and inland waters of the U.S.

Director of Training Jerry Pannell explained that on their 10-acre campus, “USCG/STCW training from OICNW/OICEW to Unlimited Master/Chief Engineer, including the specialist areas of tugs, Great Lakes and gas-fueled vessels, are all routinely offered.” And it’s not just American merchant mariners who might be interested in gaining new skills at STAR Center.

“From full-mission bridge and engine room simulators, a dynamic positioning simulator, our onsite firefighting training facility, a waterfront facility with gravity davits and fast rescue boats, a welding lab and a fully equipped machine shop on campus,” he adds, “all areas of both regulatory required training and professional development classes are available to the worldwide maritime community.”

Fort Lauderdale-based MPT (Maritime Professional Training) offers well over 200 classes and programs for virtually all aspects and sectors of the maritime industry and has been doing so since 1983.

With 61,000 square feet encompassing over 20 individual classrooms along with common areas and break facilities, its expansive campus includes the latest technologies in SMART classrooms, engineering and training labs, waterside training facilities and three full-mission bridge simulators. STCW deck, engine, safety training, regulatory and non-regulatory training courses are scheduled on a recurring rotation with 15-20 classes a week.

MPT added numerous upgrades in response to COVID – including UV sterilizers, disinfectant foggers and bipolar ionization systems to its HVAC as well as additional physical barriers – and worked closely with local health authorities in doing so. It also took advantage of the time to update several of its key systems, adding a new GMDSS lab this fall and completing a refit on two of its fast-rescue boats.

In addition, it developed new fire-training facilities to accommodate more scheduled classes with reduced class sizes. 

Accident Prevention

Although the world’s fleet continues to grow in size, the number of accidents has declined over the past several decades – a tribute to the effectiveness of new regulations and better-trained seafarers. Nevertheless, a 2019 report by insurance giant Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty identified the IMO’s 2020 0.5 percent sulfur cap and the increasing number of fires onboard as key risk factors to manage.

Merchant mariners looking to enhance their ability to respond to emergencies can turn to Resolve Marine’s educational arm, Resolve Maritime Academy, for world-class training in marine fire and damage control. Alongside the typical U.S. Coast Guard and MCA courses, the academy also offers land-based response training that includes all aspects of marine vessel fires: Command & Control, Flammable Liquids, LNG, Foam & Chemicals. They’re also backed by a world-class salvage company.

Chauncey Naylor, Resolve Maritime Academy’s General Manager, says, “About two years ago we took a deep breath and committed to recreate the Academy by bringing in the best in the business. Our leadership staff has actual experience extinguishing shipboard fires around the world along with handling marine casualties dealing with damage control and boat-handling.”

Resolve Marine recently refurbished its 130-foot, four-story training vessel, one of many facilities that allow instructors to deliver what Resolve Academy bills as a “real-as-it-gets” experience. “The depth of resources is endless when it comes to experience, specialized equipment, salvage masters, naval architects and engineers,” Naylor adds. “We don’t have to look far to get an answer for a client or have a subject matter expert address a class.”

Asia and Europe

Maritime academies abound in other countries with rich maritime histories. In Denmark, Copenhagen Business School offers an Executive MBA in Shipping and Logistics. Dubbed “The Blue MBA,” the program instructs future shipping executives in the industry’s commercial, technological and financial dimensions.

Singapore is another country with an oceanic influence that stretches far beyond its tiny territory. Established in 1953, Singapore Maritime Academy (SMA) at the Singapore Polytechnic is the country’s primary maritime training organization.

“SMA supports Maritime Singapore’s vision to be a global maritime leader, a premier global hub port and a leading international maritime center,” says Captain Mohd Salleh Bin Ahmad Sarwan, SMA Director. “SMA is in the forefront of providing the necessary maritime education and training to fill the training gaps in Singapore’s maritime industry as well as the region.”

SMA offers 54 accredited courses that are available to the global maritime workforce. Students have numerous opportunities to gain real-world experience by interning at companies such as shore-based engineering firms and shipyards, which helps them smoothly transition into the workplace after graduation. Speaking to the academy’s focus on ensuring that its students stay at the vanguard of the shipping industry, he adds, “SMA is committed to supporting our students’ aspirations to upskill themselves during the current challenging climate.”

Upskilling

In the fast-changing maritime industry, students are not the only ones who need to upskill: Maritime academies themselves must upskill in order to be able to instruct students in the latest technologies and sectors.

One of those rapidly growing sectors is renewable energy. While offshore wind farms have long been a fixture in places like the North Sea, they’re just now starting up in the U.S. where the number of people who can actually build and service them is limited.

“In the coming years in terms of training, wind-related (renewables) is an emerging market with very little infrastructure in place to support what the expected workforce demand will be,” notes Robert Hall, Training Operations Director, US/Mexico, at RelyOn Nutec. That demand will be huge, according to most experts, and new workers will need thorough training.

Some institutions, like STAR Center, are looking ahead and poised to grow in this area. STAR’s Pannell explains that the academy “is positioned to support the training and research needs in the emerging offshore wind farm industry.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated the pace of change in the maritime industry and forced programs to rethink how they offer training. These changes have been both mandated from the top-down and driven from the bottom-up by training institutions.

Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. Coast Guard required most training to be carried out in-person. As the pandemic made social distancing a necessity and inhibited travel, it allowed for more flexibility. Pannell says that “STAR Center has embraced the ability to provide our customers the training they need in both a fully online, where possible, as well as a blended method whereby the classroom portion of a class is completed online and practical assessments are offered in a compressed, concise session at a later time. Remote, online training will likely be the area of most growth as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Similar steps were taken in Singapore. When SMA’s campus was closed, lessons continued through online platforms like Blackboard, Microsoft Teams and Skype, allowing for both synchronous learning and virtual “face-to-face” consultations. In Singapore, SMA accommodated students who lacked conducive home study environments or strong Internet conditions by giving them special access to campus so they could continue their studies.

Practical sessions were also moved to the tail-end of courses so that students traveling to the city-state from their home countries would have the best possible chance of participating in real-life scenarios. Going forward, SMA is planning to move toward this blended learning approach.

Expanding Horizons

So, too, is Lamar University in Texas. There, Stromberg believes that with more courses being offered online, “We can expand our reach internationally. For example, I think there are real opportunities among ports in the Middle East and Africa.”

Resolve Marine’s Naylor also believes his academy will come out ahead – as will the maritime industry as a whole: “We believe the market is stronger than ever. Due to the pandemic, the workforce has changed. We’re seeing students from all walks of life looking at the maritime industry for opportunity. We’re gearing up to meet that need.” – MarEx  

Dr. Mia Bennett teaches at the University of Washington and is a regular contributor to The Maritime Executive.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.