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Shipping must get a grip on its skills decline

Whether on board the ships themselves or working on the shoreside as part of the support sector in maritime, skilled staff are running in short supply in the younger ranks

Every area within shipping seems to be facing a shortfall of skilled labour. The industry must liven up to this fact and start better planning for the future

DEBATE has grown recently about the lack of availability of experienced crew and the decline of traditional seafaring nations being able to recruit and train the number of skilled workers they need for the future.

The issue is being discussed of late against the backdrop of a growing world fleet. A shortage of experienced crew could lead to shipside issues that might otherwise have been avoided.

This is of course a significant concern the industry has had to deal with over the past decade, but what about those who support the shipping industry from the shore side?

The marine industry is enormous and requires vast numbers of professionals and skilled individuals to manage not only the day-to-day operations of shipping but also the numerous supporting functions. For example, every ship has a team of operational and management support staff in the owner’s offices. There are superintendents, brokers and fixtures who manage the commercial side.

There are also the thousands of people employed all over the world who support the industry when things go wrong. The people who sit behind the day-to-day optics of a shipping operation are not so well known outside the industry, so how do we ensure we can continue to attract and develop talent to ensure there is not a shortage?

We are talking about the brokers, underwriters, lawyers, adjusters, surveyors and claims handlers who support the shipping industry and are an integral part of it.

Most people who are not part of the industry would not have the first idea as to what these roles are and how to get involved in the industry even if they did want to. That being said, the industry thrives and these roles are well filled for the time being.

The issue, however, is perhaps going to affect us sooner than we might think. The age profile of the service industry that supports shipping is increasing and inevitably experienced staff in these areas will retire over the coming years.

Are we going to be left with a skills shortage for these roles? Should we be acting now to ensure we are well positioned for the next decade and beyond?

Before 2008, the shipping industry was booming and was perhaps a more lucrative business for those working in it. A question in our industry that is often very revealing is how did you start your career?

The question is usually answered in one of two ways: either the individual knew someone in the industry, or they “fell” into it. Diversity being a key part of any business is important and perhaps the industry needs to consider how we can continue to attract talent and develop that talent for the future.

Young people coming out of higher education are well versed in most job sectors and there are very obvious career paths for the more routine job sectors.

Trying to explain to a graduate they could have a career in the shipping industry as an average adjuster is a challenging task given it is a niche service line in our industry let alone in the wider job market.

Training those individuals up to become qualified and experienced and then holding on to them for 30 years is an even greater challenge.

Importantly, we all need to ensure our respective service industries continue and the level of skill and experience continues throughout. There are obvious gaps in the experience of individuals within the market.

The most experienced people in our industry are retiring and being replaced by those with a decade or perhaps two decades less of experience. Recruitment and training are important and in a perfect world there would be continuous hiring at all levels but this comes at a cost.

Since 2008, the downturn in the shipping market has had a profound effect on all parts of the industry. If the ships cannot make the same level of revenue and margin and remain profitable, that pressure is reflected in all levels of the industry.

The increasing pressure on insurance and service rates leads to a downturn in performance of those businesses and therefore an impact on the ability to recruit, train and develop new talent while trying to remain profitable.

Over the past 12 years, we have seen a fall in the number of different service providers, whether it be marine underwriters, law firms, survey firms or brokers.

Consolidation has occurred in all areas of our industry and while expertise is still available, the number of providers and therefore the amount of choice has reduced. Perhaps consolidation of the marine service industry is the answer in the short term, but it is incumbent on those experienced professionals in the market to ensure their craft is passed on to the next generation and that it continues.

It is important to continue recruiting and training young people, regardless of the costs of doing so. If we do not, the future does not hold much hope of having the necessary skills and experience to support our industry. We need to be inventive and make sure we keep our industry open to all and provide as many opportunities as we can to those who wish to have a career in it.

It is clear no matter what part of the industry you work in, we are all in it together and collectively we have a responsibility to pass on experience to the next generations.

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