Competence assurance for ship’s crew

Competence assurance is well understood and practiced in the offshore oil and gas sector, so this article by Robert Rayner from IDESS Interactive Technologies is aimed more at the shipping sector, where it does not seem to be so widely practiced.

Let’s start by asking a controversial question. Do competent crew need training?

Of course people need to be trained and educated to meet the competency standards for the job they are required to do, but what happens afterwards ?

Unless what has been learned is put into practice on a regular basis, essential knowledge will be forgotten and skills will decay. Various components will differ in their resistance to decay, but in general the greater the interval between being practiced, the greater the decay.

Certificates generated by the process of training, may indeed be necessary but are not a guarantee that the holders remain competent as time goes by.

Competence is not forever. Changes in policy, procedures, regulations, technology and equipment, business goals and objectives, all mean that workplace performance standards need to be modified and updated. And new standards must be developed for new job functions that may arise from the changes.

It is evident therefore that crew competence needs to be monitored systematically to be assured that it is aligned to business objectives and regulatory compliance. A well designed and properly implemented Competence Assurance system can manage this.

So, to answer the controversial question: Do competent crew need training?

No. If they are assessed as competent. After all their competence has been verified.

Yes, if skills gaps are identified, targeting the training necessary to close the gaps and maintain competence.

It is a matter of using the training budget wisely and spending only where it will have the greatest effect in maintaining crew competence, determined by systematically monitoring crew performance in the workplace.

Competency standards

Before going any further let’s just clarify some terms.

Competence (a word too often confused with “proficiency” or “expertise”) is a measure of an individual’s ability to perform particular tasks and duties consistently, over time, to the required standard expected in the workplace. In other words: doing the required task to the required standard.

A Unit of Competency is the specification of knowledge, skills, experience and behavioural attributes necessary to carry out tasks required to perform a job function, to the standard expected in the workplace.

A Unit of Competency is comprised of Elements which define the critical skills needed to perform tasks, specified in the Unit of Competency. The elements are the actions or outcomes that can be demonstrated and assessed.

Performance criteria are statements that specify the performance standard expected in the workplace. They describe the required outcomes that can be assessed. Assessment measures the candidate’s performance against the criteria.

This pyramid shows the relationship between job functions, competency units, elements and performance criteria.

To be able to do a particular job function, one or more units of competency will be required.

What is competence assurance?

  • In a nutshell, it is an assessment process that measures an individual’s performance in the workplace (primarily onboard) against a set of standards. In so doing it ensures that individuals retain skills and that they remain current with respect to changes in technology, equipment, practices, procedures, rules and regulations etc.
  • The principal purpose of Competence Assurance is to manage crew performance and mitigate operational risk to as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP).
  • It is a proactive process that identifies skills gaps before they can cause harm, providing a targeted approach to the allocation of training and other resources required to close the gaps.
    This is an extremely cost-effective way of managing a limited training budget.
  • It provides everyone in the work force with clear guidance regarding performance standards for each job and what is required to be accomplished for career development and advancement. Promotion decisions can be made based on quantifiable merit rather than subjective personal opinion, ensuring that individuals are properly prepared for promotion and that the right person for the job is selected. It is the link between individual performance and organisational success.
  • It provides assurance, supported by evidence, for regulators and other stakeholders alike that the organisation is compliant.

The systematic assessment process which is at the core of the Competence Assurance process addresses skills decay, and in so doing reduces both time and money spent on training by targeting the skills gaps.

There are many intelligent, dedicated professionals managing and delivering training throughout the shipping industry, who understand perfectly well the best strategies to support crew competence. But it is not always the case that their colleagues in other departments have the same level of understanding, and it is hoped that this brief article provides them with some useful information.


  1. Robert, I couldn’t agree more with you, a very well written article. thank you for sharing. I am particularly interested in 2 of the points you raised, firstly the notion that once licensed competent forever is simply incorrect. A good example of this is when we were developing Voyage Planning using ECDIS Training for a client we asked what process they use for Navigational Risk Assessment the answer was we “we don’t do that” now we know why they came to us with a training need. They were not aware and even more scary their senior officers were not aware of the changes to SOLAS Ch5 A24 and IMO Resolution A893(21) which states every Voyage Plan requires a detailed Risk Analysis for each leg of the route. If you had done your training before 2001 there would be a good chance you wouldn’t even know about the new rules. Same applies for Ballast water management, sulfur content for emissions and the list goes on. secondly, The only way seafarers can remain competent is by conducting regular upgrading training and competency assurance onboard. by accepting the risk that crews are trained and competent with out upgrading is a risk its self.

    1. I agree. In many respects Competence Assurance may be viewed as planned maintenance for people. Unfortunately there is a widespread misconception that training confirms competence. Training is input, competence is output. The latter needs to be monitored to determine the scope of the former, and so on.

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