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.