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Ship managers must find ways to future-proof crew skillsets

Ship managers must find ways to future-proof crew skillsets

Ship managers may have been the shipping disrupters of the 1970s and 1980s when they spurred a shift away from the traditional owner-employer model of manning but they are now being held to ransom by a rapidly evolving technology landscape that demands that they find ways to future-proof the skill sets of their crews and shore-side personnel.

According the Bob Maxwell, managing director of Bernhard Schulte Ship Management (Singapore), training is difficult to manage as an industry as it is controlled under the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), a convention that is not advancing at the same speed as technological change.

Ship managers have not been moving with the times to make sure their crews have the skills demanded by technological advances, even though “we do make sure we have well trained crew”, he told Fairplay.

“The industry needs to get its head around the 21st century and not train people to maintain Ford Cortinas. What we need now is crew that are better ship operators and less ship maintainers. The equipment that is now on board is night and day compared with when I was on board during the 1970s, when maintenance was much like opening the bonnet of a car to fix a problem.

"We need to help crew manage modern ships. When you have a ship that will operate for 30,000 hours between major engine overhauls, you are not going to get a chief engineer who can overhaul a piston in eight hours," he added. "What you want is for that guy to operate it so you get your 30,000 hours. It is moving in the right direction but not fast enough. This involves a mentality change that we cannot maintain ships the way we used to."

Wallem Group director of sales and marketing Nigel Moore agrees. “As ship managers we have to embrace change, in terms of technology, the roles of seafarers and shore staff, and in meeting the evolving needs of our shipowner clients.

“Our people will always be our main assets, but to provide our clients with a quality service at a reasonable cost then we must also have smart systems, efficient processes, and innovative thinking. We cannot just do everything the way it has always been done,” he said.

The dilution of talent and inadequate succession planning for senior roles are concerns that were also raised at a recent Fairplay/Wallem roundtable on the future of ship management.

“The average age of superintendents, fleet managers, tech directors, etc. is well over 50 and they are very sought after as they are the most experienced staff. This is a latent problem in the maritime industry and can only get worse over the next 5–10 years as these guys retire and we lose this valuable experience,” said a top executive with a leading owner who agreed to be quoted on condition of anonymity.

This ageing problem compounds talent dilution, he added. While talent dilution is a problem at sea, it’s probably more acute among shore-based staff and is a result of several factors, not least of which is the increase in the numbers of vessels at sea.

It currently takes a cadet between 14 and 18 years to gain sufficient experience to reach master or chief engineer but could well become a lot shorter as the fleet expands and tickets are needed at sea. This is against a background of lower levels of recruitment into the industry in general because of shipping’s low profile and as young people focus on other, more glamorous or lucrative sectors.

The increase in fleet size means more shore staff are required to manage the vessels, most of which are drawn from the same pool of staff as seafarers, which can make the problem at sea worse.

Another concern hinges on the wide work scope of the superintendent – with most looking after four ships – and whether this remit needs to change. Some suggest that superintendents require more support staff so they can focus on big-picture requirements such as drydocking, rather than ordering ship supplies.

Being a good superintendent is not just about knowing how to fix the pumps and keep the engine running. The role has become more about being a key account person. As an industry we are not prepared and we have not prepared them for that role, said Michael Elwert, CEO of shipowner Elektrans, but until recently a director of Singapore ship manager Thome.

The ship managers that see this and do something will get more value out of their supers, Elwert added.

Such steps are under way at BSM. “We are actively moving a lot of day to day work from superintendents to support staff. Having better trained support staff means the superintendent can concentrate on the high-value part of the job. You need different levels of expertise within the team, said Maxwell. We have to look at changing the model and properly professionalising the next generation.

BSM has an intake of graduates with engineering degrees being trained to more actively support the ship manager’s superintendents. Maxwell said this training must also involve the use of modern technology to get processes right so repetitive tasks can be computerised, releasing people to do the cognitive work.

While some ship managers will insist on their superintendents being a chief engineer with plenty of sea time, Maxwell believes that degree of experience is not necessarily essential. "You can take people from university with a good degree and you can train them to do a large part of what a superintendent does – some parts possibly even better," he said. But you will still need a certain critical mass in the office of people that have been to sea so they can understand that part of it.

“NASA put a man on the Moon without anyone having been there and very few of its engineers are astronauts," Maxwell said. "What makes us think to manage a ship you need to have sailed on one? You just need the right kind of training.”

Interview by Nicola Good, 'Fairplay IHS'