Will managers turn to a new continent to staff the next generation of ships?
Maritime has long been an attractive industry for young talent in countries with a less-developed economy, where seafaring has given career opportunities. However in the longer term there is growing concern of a demographic timebomb from today’s crewing powerhouses with fewer young people looking for a career at sea.
“The main issues we are currently facing in hiring crew members include the declining interest in a career at sea, especially since the onset of the pandemic, and the increasing prevalence of advanced technology, which requires new skill sets. Part of our job is to ensure that future generations are attracted to, and well equipped for, a career in shipping,” admits John-Kaare Aune, CEO of Wallem Group.
As old powerhouse seafaring nations such as the Philippines and India have proven vulnerable of late, driven by the coronavirus pandemic and other industries starting to look more appealing, some owners are turning their attention to new areas to source crew, with Africa looking like a promising emerging market.
“Our view is that Africa has great potential to become a major source of seafarers. That is why we have been involved in Africa for over a decade, and we have ambitious plans to grow our pool of African seafarers, with the support of our shipowner customers. However, this has to be done step by step, and there is no time to lose,” says Ian Beveridge, CEO of Hamburg-based Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement.
Caroline Hout, senior vice president of shipmanagement at Delta Corp Group, reckons some African countries such as Ghana are already a good source of seafarers with some quality maritime academies and schools, but she also stresses the need for further support from owners and managers to introduce access to new technologies and to get to young people aspiring to improve their income. “Africa will definitely take its place more and more on the crewing map,” she predicts.
In addition to Ghana, David Borcoski, CEO of ASP Ship Management, highlights South Africa, Ethiopia and other lesser-known sources of crew that, for various reasons, remain untapped. “In most of these new locations, there are not huge numbers of trained seafarers – so it will take time to develop,” he cautions.
Some shipmanagers are not so keen on Africa, as they remain confident in the major crew sources such as India, the Philippines, China and East Europe.
“While there is potential for this happening in the future, we don’t currently see much evidence of it and it certainly would not happen overnight,” figures Henrik Jensen, managing director of Eastern Europe-focused Danica Crewing Specialists.
“There will continue to be new crewing supply areas in developing nations, but I don’t think the dominance of some of the existing crew supply nations is about to change dramatically anytime soon. We still have more than 20,000 applicants for the close to 500 annual cadet positions at our wholly-owned academy in Karjat, India,” claims Bjorn Hojgaard, CEO of Hong Kong shipmanagement giant Anglo-Eastern.
Vinod Sehgal, CEO and managing director of SeaQuest Shipmanagement, also asserts that the company has a good pool of seafarers and has not looked at Africa yet. “Our focus is on well trained and reliable seafarers. The conventional seafaring nations are working on improving crew training and induction of new seafarers and hopefully, the balance can be maintained,” he says.
As seafarer supply tightens and wages rise, managers are looking to find low cost labour alternatives. Columbia Shipmanagement president and CEO, Mark O’Neil, points out that economic necessity has consistently been the biggest single recruitment factor for seafarers and seafaring nations. “It is an unfortunate truism that the world will never be short of developing nations, and therefore, we fully expect Africa to play a major part in the overall international crewing pool,” he tells Splash.
Nevertheless, most shipmanagement companies surveyed, despite acknowledging Africa’s crewing potential, almost unanimously stress that they do not need to search for a low cost workforce to achieve their commercial objectives and that the primary focus should be on quality personnel as measured through competence, certification, and attitude.
“The question of opening a new or untried seafarer nationality comes down to the management of risk. We do not sympathise with the term ‘low cost’ in general, and in particular, this cannot mean low competence,” stresses Bjoern Sprotte, CEO of shipmanagement at V.Group.
“Africa is always on our radar, but we would need to ensure that the quality of the maritime academies and the national certification structure is reliable and of consistently high quality,” he adds.
Sean McCormack, shipmanagement director at Northern Marine, has seen the standard of seafarers from less well-known seafarer recruitment regions increase in recent years and his company remains alert to the potential to expand its resourcing network should the candidates meet the standards and supplement the more traditional regions for recruitment. “We require to be a sustainable business and with this comes responsibility. It is not a race to the bottom and sustainable crew competence is our strategy,” he emphasises.
“A cheaper seafarer may not be actually cheap for the owner in the long run,” insists Sachit Sahoonja CEO and managing partner at Su-Nav, while Rajiv Singhal, managing director of MTM Ship Management, notes his company is not in the market for low cost crew but rather competitive, dedicated and loyal mariners who work hand in hand with shore teams to provide excellence in shipmanagement. “Marine crew is no longer low-cost crew now,” he claims.
The new generation
As the shipping industry is already struggling with crewing shortfalls, there could be a serious shortage of merchant sailors to crew commercial ships in four years if action is not taken to boost numbers, raising risks for global supply chains, a report by BIMCO and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) warned last year.
For Rajesh Unni, CEO of Singapore shipmanager Synergy Marine Group, the future of shipmanagement is not about finding the cheapest workers, it’s about finding the best trained people with the skills to operate modern, smart, digital ships. “We need people with IT skills and training, that is the future of modern shipmanagement,” he says. “It’s not about the cost of labour, it’s about the value that labour can offer.”
“My view is that as the new trading patterns evolve and we have new, specialist vessel types entering service, we will see the best shipmanagers starting to cooperate with each other so we can share our skill resources and better manage our crew logistics,” he predicts.
This is one of the articles from Splash’s Shipmanagement Market Report, a 72-page magazine published this month. Splash readers can access the full magazine for free by clicking here.