Decent working conditions, safety, career development major factors in staff retention on ships

In the Marine Insurance Asia Panel on “Enabling a Sustainable Industry” the moderator John Gibson,  Director of Asia, Marine Engineer, Brookes Bell, asked the panellists about problems with the retention of crew. He asked how people at sea could be kept motivated.

Live Jacob Sydness, Vice President, Sustainable Business, Gard AS, said that decent working conditions were a central element. “When you think of the immense responsibility of seafarers, given the value of the ship and the cargo, a safe working environment should be a top priority for all”. She said that Gard, as a marine insurer, providing cover for both people and the environment, had safety at the top of its agenda. “So decent working conditions and a safe working environment are at the top of our list.”

Gibson asked Johan Munir, Global Director, Corporate Strategy and Planning, AET, how it was possible both to keep people at sea, but also to keep shipping companies profitable.

Munir said that seafarers had been the “global frontline” for the shipping industry in the current pandemic. “Despite everything, goods were still moving.”

He felt that the key to keeping seafarers motivated was to give them the opportunity to grow in career terms. Training was important, not just for today’s environment, but for the skills that would be needed in the future, for example, in automation, AI, or even commercial skills. Keeping the seafarers engaged was the best way to keep them motivated and therefore to keep them in the industry.

Gibson observed that his own father had been away at sea, with one company, for 47 years. But for his generation that maximum period had probably halved. For the current generation, it had reduced again.

Was this for environmental reasons? Cultural? He asked the panel why crews were now unwilling to spend less time at sea than people had been willing to do a generation ago. He also asked whether we should just accept this, or should we try to change it? Had something gone wrong, or was it just a matter of people’s life expectations changing, and there was nothing that could be done about it?

Captain Simon Bennett, General Manager – Sustainable Development at Swire Bulk (now separated from China Navigation Co) and Swire Pacific Offshore, said that it was certainly the case that millennials’ expectations were very different. Tour lengths were reduced as a necessary means of attracting youngsters into the industry. But during the pandemic seafarers had dug in, doing three months over, six months over, some of them nine months over. And they physically could not get crew-changed. “They have been designated as key workers, but there doesn’t seem to have been too much action. Crew have been taken advantage of, and this is certainly going to be demotivating”, he said.

Bennett felt that, post-pandemic, we would be in a changed world, “and I think that we are going to see a lot of demotivated seafarers when life gets back to normal”.

Gibson agreed that the way ship crew had been treated during Covid-19 was terrible and that the way they had come to the fore was admirable. He added that the industry needed to keep crew on board and engaged at least for long enough for them to come ashore and become senior people in the industry.

Gibson also noted that the senior person on board was at the sharp end when it came to a casualty. These were the ones who could be put into court after an incident. But, Gibson observed, these very officers were nowadays having to defer decisions to the onshore technical and operational staff. Gibson asked: “If shoreside staff tell the crew what to do in a casualty, how does that affect the claim?”

Quentin Drew, Claims Director (Vietnam & China), West of England P&I Club said that, from a P&I Club’s point of view, it was foolish to be taking decision-making powers away from crews. “It is certainly demotivating in any job, whether on a ship or in an office. If somebody is going to take your authority, essentially what they are saying is ‘we don’t trust you’.” Drew said that the system had changed very gradually, but he could see how from a shipowners’ point of view it was not necessarily foolish at all. “The shipowner has to comply with regulations. They are having to comply with jurisdictional requirements with their ISM procedures, their internal auditors. From their point of view the whole question of decision making has become completely different.”

So, to motivate the crew you need to give them the decision-making power, but from a shipowner’s’ point of view, having to deal with shareholders, being accountable for everything, it’s easy to see how that whole procedure of decision-making had slowly but consistently devolved more and more onshore.

Drew agreed that, from a P&I Club’s point of view was that crew needed to be properly trained, and part of that needed to be to give them decision making powers. “When we look at pretty much all of the large incidents over the past two or three years you do wonder what is going on on board and how come crews are not managing to do operations that they have been managing to do for decades with no problem. Whether it’s a question of inappropriate training. I think that in many cases it probably is, or more that than anything else. And that comes down to a question of money, and how much resource an owner has to be able to devote to crew. Do other shipowners see automation as something which will happen in the not too distant future, and where does that leave the crew. If the career expectancy of crew is so short, then what shipowner is going to be investing money in their training? That’s the sad reality.”

Live Jacob Sydness noted that there had been a fall in the number of crew on ships over the past 25 years and this would probably continue over the next 25 years. For now the automated ships in operation were used over shorter distances, and she did not think that we were headed towards a total absence of seafarers. The new technologies would open up new risks, while also offering potential gains in cost reductions and safety improvements.

She said that you would still need people to make the best judgements in difficult circumstances.