Times have changed since it was the maladjusted youth or economically challenged profiles who were the foundation of the crewing for ships. These days it is a profession of choice and officers are educated to bachelor level. But has the industry managed to develop in parallel to integrate these profiles and how is the prospect of the future?
Only 50 years ago the shipping business was extremely different from now. Being a sailor was a life style, it was not rare to spend 12 month at sea and a high number of sailors never made it home to Denmark between ships, but stayed in maritime hubs like Singapore, Manila or Bangkok. Ships stayed long time in ports – sometimes weeks. There was plenty crew onboard and no alcohol restriction or AIDS. Sailors was adventurous people who in the marine business could wipe the screen clean and start a new life. Never mind that you did not have an education, that you came out from prison, that you were not able to read, as long as you were able (hence the term AB Able-Bodied), willing to work hard and could fit in onboard socially you were welcome in the business. Youngsters tired of school were happy to find a different environment where they could be challenged, earn good money and come home as men. Myths were created at that time. Sailors were rough people with tattoos, parrots on the shoulder and golden ear rings.
All this has changed. In the maritime business you now need a high school degree to enter the officer educations. Becoming a junior navigating officer takes at least 4 years and there is no room for maladjusted people. The amount of administration is now so demanding that you need extensive bookkeeping skills. The ships are so advanced that you need extensive training to operate the equipment. Most ships spend few hours in port with no time for the sailors to go ashore. The crew onboard has been reduced to the absolute minimum. On top of this, different nationalities have been implemented in the crewing policy with the target of reducing manning cost. Crew from third world countries does not complain about the conditions. If you can choose between poverty, hunger or going to sea – the latter is clearly the best. But the western youngsters are not happy with the conditions. They have other choices. Few people who have spent their life on sea will recommend this path to their kids. Extensive marketing have been implemented in Denmark to attract new profiles to the blue business. The campaign has been relatively successful and every year a new batch of fresh baked officers is leaving the Engineer or Navigating Officer Schools.
So what reality waits for these hopeful young people? What made them make the choice to enter the business? And for how long will they stay? And what will they do after the sailing career? These are good questions that are not easily answered. First of all, lots of trouble waits onboard the ships. That is for sure, studying various reports and maritime blogs. Items that score high rank in the mind of sailors these days are: Piracy, criminalization, loneliness, deprivation, disturbed sleep pattern, no influence on food and difficult access to doctors. The other side of the coin is the high pay, the independence, the big responsibility, the travels and the personal development being on your own out in the big world. In Denmark, the average time a navigation officer continues to sail after end education is 7 years according to a survey conducted by Danish Maritime Officers. Then they start to work ashore in a marine related company or do something completely different. A few percent last longer and if you are sailing when you are 50 the chances that you will go ashore is quite small. Obviously it may be a bit difficult for such a profile to adjust to a land job after many years at sea. If there was ample supply of officers and senior profiles for the offices, we did not need to change anything, from an economical perspective at least. But talking to the various ship owners in Denmark we start to see a bottle neck arising. We do not have enough HSQE profiles, we do not have enough DP operators and we lack naval architects and many other important positions. That is the fuel under the discussion, what do we do about now and what do we do in a longer perspective?
Denmark has been a leader in the maritime business for many years. Most people in the business know that we contribute in a substantial way to the welfare society of Denmark. 85.000 people are directly employed in the business and 10,5 of the total production value stems from the maritime business. Of this 85% is export – which is highly needed to keep our balance of payments positive. In the last years, 15 shipyards tidnungs have closed in Denmark and the newbuilding business has almost completely been overtaken by Asian countries. Over the last 6 years, Europe’s part of the newbuilding business has been reduced from 18,8% to 9,1% – a staggering reduction of more than 50%. Onboard the Danish ships the share of Danish officers has been reduced from 86% to 70% over the last 9 years and at the same time the share of foreign officers has increased from 14% to 30%. It looks even worse when we study the figures for ratings, in the same 9 years the figure for Danish ratings has dropped from 54% to 35% and the share of foreigners has increased from 46% to 65%. 30% of the entire world fleet is manned by ratings from the Philippines. Before it all gets too negative, it is important to highlight that over the last 7 years the Danish fleet has increased by more than 100% from 15.994 Mill. DWT to 32.157 Mill. DWT. Danish ship owners are doing well right now, no doubt about this. They were not so hard affected by the crisis because the fundament was in order. More than hundred years of experience showed the difference in the financial crisis and we have seen very few owners in trouble in Denmark. But with above figures in mind, what is the prospect for the future?
In the past, the average sailing time for the sailors employed onboard the offices was high. It was not uncommon with 10-30 years of sailing time in the book before you became superintendent, HSQ manager, or even fleet manager. That is not the case now. Young people want to get ashore again after few years at sea. Probably due to a mix of the above-mentioned parameters. The ship owners cannot pick and choose who they want for the shore-based positions. Actually, for years, they have got new people to shore-based positions by attracting profiles, with a higher salary and better conditions, from competing ship-owners. Most ship-owners still have senior profiles in the corner. Young people cannot do without them. When the McGregor hatches are jamming, when they have an oil spill, port state control, etc. the grey gold has seen it all and knows how to deal with it. There is an increasing concern about what will happen when these senior profiles are not in the office anymore. They are the true value of the company, the heart blood so to speak. And they have practical experience from the sea, they understand the terms and conditions onboard a ship. If we want to maintain the maritime business in Denmark in some form we have to look into this single subject. It is not enough to educate more people. Utilizing crew from third world countries is not the answer – they tend to retire early and move back home – which is quite understandable since they spent a significant part of their life onboard the ships in long duty periods.