Shipping needs right brain thinkers too

Where is there room in shipping to be creative? To experiment and do a bit of day-dreaming? Who is encouraging success through trial and error, rather than prescription? James Wilkes on how to make our industry a more attractive career option.

Last month at the start of London International Shipping Week, I ran my first ever straw poll on Twitter asking: With some emphasis this week on wanting to attract the brightest and the best into the shipping industry, would you choose a maritime career again if you got the chance to start over?

First time around, I didn’t allow the poll to run for as long as I should – lesson learned – but 3 out of the 4 respondents (75%) said No.

I ran it again, for a bit longer, and the second time around 8 out of the 11 (73%) respondents said Yes. Not quite the insight I’d hoped to generate.

Maybe it was the wrong question. Maybe it was the wrong time to put the question. Maybe I have too small a following on Twitter. Maybe no one could be genuinely bothered to think about it, let alone vote. Fair enough.

So I tried again, with a question along similar lines: Given the opportunity, would a young you join the shipping industry today?

I wasn’t expecting this Tweet to go viral any more than the first.

It wasn’t a video of a small fury animal doing something physically extraordinary, like squeaking the first five bars of God Save the Queen while chewing a brazil nut.

And per my expectations, it didn’t. I am no more an internet sensation now than I was before.

However, thanks to a little more exposure from a few Twitter friends, this time my poll managed to attract 77 votes. The result was that 58% said Yes, while 42% said No. 77 votes in not a big sample. It’s not a sample that a statistician would define as representative.

I don’t know the identity or motives of most of those who voted. Only eight people Tweeted a message to offer a more developed answer. But at a time when shipping is ostensibly worried about employment diversity, competency, attracting talent and retaining it, I find it interesting that 42% said that a young them would not join the shipping industry today.

I find it interesting because if shipping really wants to address these issues it wouldn’t hurt to explore why apparently there are so many people disenchanted with the industry.

I haven’t interviewed the 32 people who voted No, so I don’t know what their personal gripes are.

Taking a guess, I imagine some of them will be unhappy because they have been passed over for promotion, their salaries and benefits are not what they think they should be, their companies/ships are awful places to work, or they were just having a bad day when they responded to the poll and were venting.

But the context of the question was that it was a ‘young you’ I was asking about.I was looking for answers taking into account the arc of a career. And if that is how most of those voting reflected on that question, then for a notable minority there must be a profound disconnect between the industry they believed they joined and the one they are working in now. It’s an issue that should exercise us.

What has happened to our industry over the last two decades, say, that should have people turning their faces – and talent – away?

I don’t have the answer to this but if I was to hazard a guess based on observation and conversation over the last few years, my starting point would be that shipping has, for a lot of people, become a boring industry in which to work.

Not everywhere, in every way, for everyone: there are exceptions to all rules. But in general, the things that shipping seems obsessed with are pretty dull.

Cost-saving strategies, debt restructuring, leveraged finance, big data, capacity generation/shrinkage, blockchain, digitalisation, optimisation and anything ending in ‘tech’, are, I’m sure, all important things.

And if since you were five-years old you wanted to be an accountant, banker, financial analyst or the CEO of a major stock-listed company, I can see why you might get excited by them.

But what about people who are not left-brain dominant? Where is there room in shipping to be creative? To experiment and do a bit of day-dreaming? Who is encouraging success through trial and error, rather than prescription?

What about making room for ideas that don’t make logical sense initially, but have the scope to surprise us?

What about trying something different, because how everyone is doing it now isn’t working?

As marketers are fond of saying: what about zigging, when everyone else is zagging?

If we’re willing to think about that, we might discover we have the beginnings of an answer to why 42% of people who responded to my whimsical straw poll said that a young them would not join the shipping industry today.

We might then be able to do something about employment diversity, competency, and attracting talent and retaining it, rather than just talking about it.


Splash is Asia Shipping Media’s flagship title offering timely, informed and global news from the maritime industry 24/7.


  1. At a time that more maritime companies are wanting and looking for more talent, they’re less inclined to develop talent for the long haul. They’re looking for someone out of the box, ready to go, with all the knowledge of an experienced analyst/operator/charterer/marine superintendent/ etc. at the cost of someone with less than 2 years experience. The REALITY is that maritime companies want the experience, but aren’t willing to pay for it. And if they aren’t willing to pay top dollar, they get too skittish about hiring someone young and promising to rise through the ranks and learn under someone with a lot more experience.

    Just like in any business, you need to spend money to make money. And if you aren’t willing to do that, you have to gamble for a positive outcome.

  2. I don’t think shipping has become a boring place in which to work. Far from it. I think James hit the nail on the head when he said that those who said their younger self wouldn’t choose a career in shipping were probably unhappy with salary / benefits, in an organisation with no direction, or simply having a bad day and wanted to vent. Actually, I think shipping presents young people with everything they’re looking for and more. I’m stereotyping to a degree, but they do have an overriding ambition to make a difference, to affect change, to improve environmental impact, and to work for an organisation that makes a contribution to society as a whole. Maritime has all of that and more!

    Indeed, the maritime industry needs transformation in so many ways that opportunity is rife for young people. But the biggest issue, in my opinion, is that they don’t know about it! If we could all do more, as individuals and organisations, to engage in society’s broader conversations around environment, the circular economy, social responsibility, diversity, and digitalisation, attracting and retaining the next generation of talent – whether they’re right- or left-brain thinkers – will become much easier.

    The vast majority of people I meet that work in shipping are genuinely passionate about the industry. Obsessed even. Many of them may have found themselves in the industry by accident but never want to leave; its breadth and depth can be addictive. So I’m not sure that it’s maritime recruitment that needs a total overhaul. We just need to get better at empowering all these influential shipping advocates to tell our powerful story.

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