Crewing demographic timebomb laid bare

When you read and hear about life at sea, can you help but wonder where the future of our industry is headed? The themes and anecdotes are predominantly negative: seafarers’ welfare must be improved, seafarers are not getting enough rest, seafarers need more access to social media, criminalisation of seafarers is becoming commonplace, the capability and reliability of seafarers is on the decline, salaries are low compared to shoreside positions…and so on. Why would anyone want to start a career at sea?

Recruiting young men and women to serve a career at sea appears to be an ever more challenging task. Spend six or more months away from friends and loved ones, receive average pay, travel to interesting and exotic locations around the world – without actually visiting those places as you will be restricted to the ship without shore leave. It is a tough argument to make if you are a shipowner trying to recruit new crew.

We were curious to see if the facts and age trends support what we see and hear in the daily news articles and at the variety of shipping industry conferences we attend. Are our seafarers getting younger, or older?

After analysing certifications issued by the Liberian Registry since 2000, here is what we found:

  • The average age of a Master has held at 47 years old.
  • The average age of a Chief Engineer has increased by two years to 49 years old.
  • Engine and Deck Ratings’ average ages have increased by five and six years to 40 and 39 years old respectively.
  • Both Deck and Engine Officers of the Watch have seen their average ages decrease by one year to 34 and 36 years old, respectively.
  • In the offshore industry, averages are also increasing, with the exception of the watchkeeping engineer officers, which have seen a significant decline from an average age of 47 to 39 years old.
  • The percentage of seafarers aged 55 and older has grown. In 2000 they represented 4% of the work force – by 2015, they were 11%.
  • So, what do we make of this information? Over the past 18 years, chief engineers, deck and engine ratings are getting older, masters are maintaining their average age and watchkeeping officers are getting younger. The net result is that there is an increasing number of seafarers aged 55 years and older. As a point of reference, the US Department of Labor has also measured an increase in the percentage of the US labour force aged 55 and older – from 13% to 22%.

Looking more closely at our statistics, we see that the profound trends appear to be with ratings. Are these pillars of sea staff staying at sea longer or are we failing to recruit younger seafarers? Regardless, these numbers seem to confirm the maritime industry is facing a demographic timebomb. The impact of this will be felt in both obvious and subtle ways. It is going to be increasingly hard to find people (regardless of quality), a smaller labour pool could put inflationary pressure on seafarer wages, and an older seafaring community will come with its own health and welfare requirements.

We believe that a critical part of the problem is that (with some notable exceptions) seafarers no longer feel that their relationship with their employer extends further than their current contract. How well are they introduced to their employer? What mid- and long-term career opportunities are available to them? What opportunities exist for eventual shoreside employment? When was the last time seafarers visited their employer’s office?

Industry commentary needs to move away from the problem – we know it exists – to solutions and action. Whatever we are doing now, whatever benefits or training we have been using to attract people to the maritime sector, it is just not working.

This is not an issue that can be solved by one company, one flag state, one training institution or one labour supply state. It is going to require a collective effort to address a problem of this magnitude.

What do you think? Are these trends indicative of a healthy industry? Please share your comments and experiences.

Scott Bergeron

Scott Bergeron is the CEO of the Liberian Registry.


  1. No wonder we have a situation that is mostly created by the industry itself with the assistance of expanded safety meassures in most countries/ports resulting in hardly no opportunities to go ashore for a moment (!) of relaxation and social contacts. It appears that being signed on a vessel today is more or less comparable with serving a prison sentence.
    Once in port, myriads of inspectors, surveyors and various authority individuals are chasing the poor crew trying to nail a potential culprit for braking one of the myriads of by laws, rules and regulations substituting common sence that would follow with the appointment as a master or deck/engine officer.
    I am afraid that the hunt for cheap labour – usually performed by all these manning companies – is backfiring both when it comes to
    quality and loyalty of the seafaring community.
    Multi cultural crews ara probably another contributing factor. Quite often one see perhaps only two or three individuals in key positions onboard a vessel that have a common cultural background. This fact also adds to isolation and loneliness for prolonged periods at sea. Finnaly, the old fashioned “family” owned/operated shipping company is something of the past when people in the owner’s office know the onboard staff and vice verse. Today, most vessels are treated like a rented car. The charterer is only interested in squeezing out as much as possible of the vessel and crew whilst the vessel is at their disposal. To expect any actual interest and care for those onboard the vessel is not to be expected. The problem will be solved once the autonoumus vessel will ply the oceans!

  2. work on board is so hard and documentation is killing seafarers. so much exagirated safety inspection every 6 month and so much survey is a big head ache.specially if few minor defficiency is noticed. technical manager require master and officer of so much explanation and blaming all people on board.all this safety inspection is so much exagurated.normally safety only require life boat,life jaket,generator,ventillation,oil separator.and boiler and fire doors.but most inspector now adays inspect morethan supposed to be require.try to go china.nobody will pass in their inspection

  3. Eric, thanks for your comment. Think, the unmanned ship will not eliminate all those “good and “smart”” shore people greed for money by squeezing out all available resources, be they breathing creatures or not.
    As a head of a medium-sized manning 1.000+ farers) had delivered myself to the same exercise while in function.
    In order to see the demographics one should defnitely “dig” deeper, IMHO. Did the same exercise for my pool to discover exactly the same trends. Now, for my part, the biggest chunk of the pool consisted of the ex-USSR / Poland / Bulgarian, etc., people. Taking into consideration the respective retirement age ligislation changes in the region (introduced recently), would not be much afraid about averages slipping slightly “upwards”.
    Depending on the nationality, some other considerations not to be forgotten either.

  4. How could the industry attract young people when at the same time encouraging and deploying (or trying to deploy) digitalisation for anything, anywhere, for whatever reason, “smart this” and “smart that” leading to full automation and eventually autonomous ships? If I was a young guy or young lady wondering which way to go for my career, why should I choose a job that will be taken over (supposedly much better than myself) by a robot in 5 or 10 years time?

  5. Ship owners have nobody to blame but themselves in their race to the bottom on costs. Too many ships, too many owners, too little cargo. But not to worry there is a great untapped generation of slaves who will continue to fill the gap from Philippines, China, Bangledesh, Pakistan to fill the void. I see the average “contract” now approaching 9mos with 2.5mos off. It started in the 80’s with ships under British, Norway, Greece, Japan, India etc all being flagged out and crew canned and turned over to manning agencies. Cargo ships I sailed on equalled really nice hotels, now they are just concrete laminate prisons and a line balance item to the bean counters.

  6. All comments above are the bitter true unfotunately.A thing is that nowadays industry need a fresh blood, but so called milleniums are hardly manipulative,which is not feasible for it’s brainwashing methods!Hence a young people will never agree to serve at sea.So pitty that I see many people on key management positions acting as a robots ,which follows a frantic orders gived by almost brainless people from shore management.How the youngster will react if somehow company screw him up with the crew change for instance?Just simply next time he would change the job and will never return back to the sea.From the other hand all manning/recruitment agents acts just like a headhunters,treating the people like a livestock.An equaton could be simplier in case of shorter contacts,desent wages and serious back up from employers.Very interesting how easy most of the managers and key personnel forgot about their past at Sea (if they have such).Don’t you think that all those issues(and many more)will atract clever and capable people?No way!!!

Back to top button