The maritime HR crunch in Singapore

Chief correspondent Jason Jiang looks at the demographic divide causing trouble at the world’s most vibrant maritime hub.

Singapore has been one of the major maritime clusters in the world for years and the maritime industry contributes around 7% of Singapore’s GDP and employs more than 170,000 people. Nevertheless, long held concerns of a maritime HR crunch persist in this most vibrant of shipping hubs.

In January, the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) of Singapore launched the Sea Transport Industry Transformation Map, which builds on MPA’s strategic long term plans to develop Singapore’s next-generation port and strengthen its position as an international maritime centre. Specific initiatives have been laid out under the Sea Transport ITM to catalyse innovation, drive productivity improvements, as well as enhance the skills of the maritime workforce. The aim is to grow the sector’s value-add by S$4.5bn and create more than 5,000 good jobs by 2025.

However, HR specialists contacted by Splash warn there are still many challenges in finding and keeping the right people for maritime in the Lion Republic.

Karen Waltham, managing director at HR Consulting firm Spinnaker Global, has been told by several members of Spinnaker Global’s Maritime HR Association at a recent networking event in Singapore that they are finding it hard to attract and retain talent in their organisations. 

Waltham reckons the lack of available local talent combined with restrictive immigration laws is proving a challenge, despite efforts in recent years by the MPA and industry bodies to attract local Singaporeans, particularly the younger generation, into the maritime sector.

According to Waltham, it is not borne out by the results of Maritime HR Association salary survey that new graduates are failing to be attracted to a career in the industry simply because the starting salaries aren’t competitive.

The survey compared base salaries for entry level shore-based roles and found them to be broadly in line with the average graduate salaries reported in the Ministry of Education’s most recent graduate employment survey, at around S$3,300 per month.

“Our guess is that the industry has a public relations problem – maritime is just not viewed as an attractive career option for millennials,” Waltham says. She suggests it is time for maritime organisations to start focusing on their brand and considering their employee value proposition.

“We do see that there are insufficient local talent/resources in certain areas which means we have to source from different avenues to meet our operation needs. This also means we have to be more adventurous in looking for talent outside maritime industry,” Adrian Lau, regional HR director, Asia Pacific at Wilhelmsen Ships Service, tells Splash.

According to Lau, brand awareness will play a significant part in attracting the millennials and the company is making efforts on new technology and digitalisation to be at the forefront of the maritime industry, which has a positive effect in attracting potential job candidates.

Sherman Ong, HR manager at Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement Singapore, is of the opinion that the high demand for technical experience and knowledge, along with demanding industry requirements and changing legislation, are the challenges in recruiting the right talent in Singapore.

“The government is doing a fantastic job at the moment by promoting a lot of initiatives, such as the Maritime Cluster Fund, to attract young local talents to work in the maritime sector. The government could promote technology and innovation more and further invest in future capabilities and solutions built on emerging technologies, such as autonomous systems, data analytics and artificial intelligence, making Singapore also an international technology hub,” Ong says.

Matt Conway, managing director of Faststream Recruitment Group, warns that although there is an ever deepening talent pool of experienced maritime and marine professionals living in Singapore, still a significant number of these individuals are not local Singaporeans, and this is especially acute within the niche or specialized sectors, such as LNG.

“For the majority of senior commercial positions the level of experience required for these positions is still not, in most cases available in the local Singapore market, meaning employers have no alternative other than expanding their search to other maritime hubs globally to find the right talent for their businesses.  There is a slow paradigm shift in this equation, but based on all of the data we see this shift still has quite a way to go before Singapore can be a somewhat self sufficient talent market,” Conway maintains.

In Conway’s view, technology and financial services with its historically interesting nature to new graduates, are industries that are inherently interesting for millenials, and a large part of this is branding and highlighting the interesting technologies, the disruptive nature of the cutting edge ideas and work culture they encourage.

“The Singapore government is driving fantastic initiatives to improve the situation, however I feel that this is only half of the question. The other part of the question is what more could the maritime industry as a whole do to improve the situation? What more could all of the industry stakeholders be doing to improve the perception of the maritime and marine industries in the eyes of millenials and positioning the maritime and marine industries as careers of choice for young people? I think not enough,” Conway believes.

Jason Tay, managing partner at Direct Search Asia, reckons that the issue of a lack of maritime talent in Singapore mainly lies in the technical sector. In his view, the Singapore government and maritime authorities has made very good progress in retaining and developing talent but not in attracting talents or fresh blood.

According to Tay, skill-specific roles such as technical, marine superintendents and marine surveyors, usually require several years of seafaring experience and these talents usually remain in the sector until the end of their careers.

However, Tay is seeing an aging population in this area, with most local talents in this segment already in their 50s. Many of them work for companies that provide niche maritime technical consultation and services, hence the requirement for talents with high technical expertise.

“Closing this gap is a long wavelength, which will require long-term commitment and investment from the industry players and government,” Tay says. He firmly believes that innovation, communication, collaboration and networking are of utmost importance to attract fresh talents.

“Today’s internet age has far diminished the lure of seeing the real world by sea. The shipping and maritime has been portrayed as a traditional industry and less permeable to innovation. However, the industry is going through a change, which could possibly attract fresh talents, if not, trigger their interest to know more,” Tay says.

“Technical advancement and drive for efficiency in the shipping and maritime industry have led to demand for employees with additional, if not different skillset or technology. While many will argue this is a global norm, it comes especially critical for a country like Singapore, which aims to position itself as the region’s shipping and maritime hub, offering top notch port facilities and services to construct high specification offshore drilling and production facilities,” Tay argues.

Heidi Heseltine, chief executive officer of Halcyon Recruitment, has noticed that support staff (finance/administration/HR) can readily be found from the local Singaporean employment community but there remains a notable and significant lack of experienced talents in the areas of commercial (chartering/broking/trading / sales / business development), management-level (with MNC international exposure) and technical / marine (ex-seafaring personnel).

“It should be understood that the maritime scene in Singapore is no longer booming.  It remains active but global maritime markets have been depressed and whilst there are improvements, recovery is still slow and although there is optimism, it is cautious optimism,” Heseltine says.

According to Heseltine, in terms of attracting local Singaporeans to the maritime industry, the government has made a concerted effort to promote the maritime sector and to incentivise employers to recruit from the local market. 

 “We have definitely seen an increase in the number of fresh graduates locally into the maritime sector, as well as individuals seeking to change career paths into the maritime field, but there is a lack of opportunities available for them.  Many employers want people with previous experience and there is a lack of roles available for apprentices or that offer training programmes,” Heseltine warns.

Talking about recruiting challenges, Heseltine believes the increasingly tight requirements for EP / WP / SP are impacting on maritime employers ability to hire the right people for the job and the 24/7 nature of the industry can be a deterrent for some as well, additionally, the rising cost of living in Singapore is also a challenge which sees a growing number of companies outsourcing support functions to cheaper locations such as the Philippines, Malaysia and India.

“The government should continue to promote the maritime industry amongst local Singaporeans ensuring the breadth of companies and jobs available is communized, that potential long term career opportunities are clear and that the white collar corporate side of the industry is also highlighted as well as the more blue collar positions in ports, yards and offshore,” Heseltine suggests.

“The only way to develop and sustain long term employment opportunities for local Singaporeans is to ensure that maritime employers are encouraged to set up and stay in Singapore, are able to recruit the talent they need in the short term, and incentivised to attract, retain and develop from the local Singaporean market in the short, medium and long term,” Heseltine concludes.

Jason Jiang

Jason is one of the most prolific writers on the diverse China shipping & logistics industry and his access to the major maritime players with business in China has proved an invaluable source of exclusives. Having been working at Asia Shipping Media since inception, Jason is the chief correspondent of Splash and associate editor of Maritime CEO magazine. Previously he had written for a host of titles including Supply Chain Asia, Cargo Facts and Air Cargo Week.
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