Singapore fights maritime talent battle

Many in the Lion City’s shipping circles are struggling to find the right calibre of employee. How to fix this?

Talent has been, is, and is likely to remain a major challenge for those involved in maritime in Singapore.

The Lion City was, in building its international maritime centre, flexible and pragmatic regarding employment passes. Today, that situation has changed. The granting of work visas has in the past been to some extent driven by compensation levels, with thresholds applied. With the situation changing, there is concern that there might be a local labour crunch.

Cara Carter, who heads up Halcyon Recruitment’s Asian operations, says companies have been lobbying the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) to get the Ministry of Manpower to have more flexibility.

“Ministers know that Singapore talent isn’t there and some companies are putting roles into Dubai instead due to better flexibility. Singapore wants to keep its number one top spot so flexibility is a must together with a drive to make the maritime industry more attractive to the Singaporean community,” Carter tells Splash.

David Borcoski, CEO of ASP Ships Group, urges the Singapore government to recognise where talent shortages exist and quickly adjust immigration policies accordingly.

“This should be a dynamic process,” Borcoski says, adding that at the same time the government should be clear as to why this is necessary and adjust local training and education initiatives where this will help plug the skills gap.

Ministers know that Singapore talent isn’t there and some companies are putting roles into Dubai instead

Jason Tay, who founded local recruitment outfit Direct Search Global, agrees with Carter, saying: “Finding the right talent is definitely a challenge now.”

Reasons Tay gives are what he describes as the “great resignation wave”, combined with people still expecting the hybrid work arrangement they had during covid. Moreover, companies have started hiring again, hence more tempting jobs are being advertised. The whole controversial issue of employment passes is one that Tay reckons will affect local maritime businesses in the long run.

“Currently the pool of local talents available in the market has not reached an optimal level for a competitive labour market,” concedes Carl Schou, president of Wilhelmsen Ship Management. As a result, Schou says he sees the same people job hopping, and with every move there is an expectation of a salary/benefit increase of 20% to 30%.

“This phenomenon cannot continue if the expectation is for businesses to flourish in Singapore,” Schou says, adding: “We hope to see some relaxation in foreign employment requirements as a more sustainable approach for business to grow and continuation of generating more jobs for the local economy.”

One “easy” solution to overcome the shortage of local personnel with sea experience, according to Philippe Lecloux, group head of marine at Aderco, is to tinker with the country’s national service set-up. Two years off for national service disconnects maritime academies from sea jobs – much of the time working in the military could be better spent onboard a merchant ship, Lecloux suggests.

Rajesh Unni, the founder of Synergy Marine Group, reckons there is an imagination gap for shipping in Singapore rather than a talent gap and employers need to tackle this head-on.

“This imagination gap is not about there being a lack of talent available locally, it is our failure to tap into the labour that is available – that is the problem,” Unni explains, going on to hit out at shipping’s lack of diversity.

“For too long, we’ve taken the easy option of employing those with a seafaring background. These are, of course, predominantly males. It is now more difficult to get visas for these people in Singapore,” Unni points out, saying there’s a need now to employ more people in our industry who don’t have a seafaring background.

Our failure to tap into the labour that is available is the problem

“Many of the roles in shipping and shipmanagement now are more akin to tech jobs. We have smart systems, fleets, and ships. An IT or engineering background is, in many ways, just as useful as having spent 10 years on a ship,” Unni argues.

For maritime, there is a need to increase awareness in order to attract more new entrants into the industry, says Dr Shahrin Osman, regional head of maritime advisory for class society DNV.

“Not a lot of parents and young job seekers know what maritime roles really entail so maritime is not seen as sexy enough,” Osman reckons. Unlike in Europe, in Singapore, they often don’t consider it a sophisticated, technical sector.

To change this, Osman says a major mindset shift needs to occur so that people can finally see the abundance of opportunities that exist within maritime and are coming into play with rapid technological transformations.

“Once we generate more interest, we can then generate more supply by having university students gravitate towards maritime studies at a younger age,” Osman says.

With shipping now embracing technology, and with ambitious sustainability goals, the demand for talent is much broader, and potentially more attractive for young new jobseekers, says Joanna Soh, vice president at local tech vendor, i03.

Steps are also being made to attract more talent focusing on skills development and in line with the industry’s sustainability and green goals. Singapore is leading the charge as is evident from the city-state’s involvement in the the Maritime Just Transition Task Force, which was founded by the International Chamber of Shipping, International Transport Workers’ Federation and the UN Global Compact.

“To achieve the goals of sustainable shipping, there is a definitive need for new skills and re-adjustment or re-training of the existing workforce. The government is aware of this and is taking adequate measures to close these gaps,” Soh says.

Yes we are, exclaims Quay Ley Hoon, the outgoing chief executive of the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA).

“With the accelerated growth in technology and sustainability projected in the next five years, job seekers can expect exciting opportunities in maritime Singapore,” Quah insists.

This is an extract from the Splash Singapore Market Report 2022, which is being distributed across multiple shipping events in the Lion City this week. Splash readers can access the full magazine for free online by clicking here.


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