There is, said the president of the UK Chamber of Shipping the other day, “a global shortage of seafarers”. There is nothing very unusual in such an observation; the shipping industry has been swinging from feast to famine for centuries. It was the raison d’etre for the press gang and the crimps who used to haunt the waterfronts in the days of sail.
Today we have expeditions from crewing agencies, fanning out across the world searching for people, preferably so disadvantaged on land that seafaring at the going pay scales is sufficient to persuade them afloat.
That is a cynical view, of course. Modern seafaring offers prospects for rapid advancement, a reasonable package of rewards and for officers, a great deal or responsibility at a young age. This is true, if one is careful about the choice of employer. But if this was universally recognised, there surely wouldn’t be the reluctance to sign on that is so apparent around the world. But seafaring is regarded by 21st century people as fundamentally antisocial, with first trippers experiencing mental breakdowns when they discover – too late – that none of their electronic devices work, once the land sinks over the horizon. They might be bribed with money for a while, but they will not stay around any longer than it takes to save up for that shop, farm or restaurant.
It is not helped by the attitude ashore which regards seafarers as a blooming nuisance and any advance that enables a smaller crew to be employed as one well worth buying. The desperate cost saving efforts, which throws a handful of people from half a dozen different languages and cultures together, expecting them to meld together into a socially cohesive unit, driven wholly by the monthly wage bill, is not a policy designed to promote manpower retention, let alone happiness. An industry which has never managed to wean itself away from casual labour and the sub-contracting of employment is never going to be one that can look with pride at its manpower policies.
There are, of course, some companies that do it right. They may be owners or managers, who believe in the long term and don’t make sarcastic noises about heart surgeons being trained in a shorter period than it takes to produce a master or chief engineer. But in a seafaring manpower world surrounded by poachers who address their short term needs in their traditional fashion, it is hard to justify the cadet training programme, the ongoing career development and the talent spotting, which recognises the value of the home-grown.
There are thus few alternatives open to a shipping company looking to the future. They could put all the money into sophisticated data handling, communication and monitoring equipment, in order to operate ships under ever-closer shore-side surveillance and not worry too much about the quality, let alone the job satisfaction of the cheap people hired to make up the necessary numbers afloat.
Or they could opt for the hard road, doing what it takes to recruit, train and retain people who return the loyalty given to them, who take pride in their professionalism and being part of an elite. It will cost more, the customers may not respond with any higher rewards for such excellence, but one might think that eventually quality will produce its own reward when enough people see the difference.
The other rather depressing alternative, other than merely muddling through, is to embrace the unmanned ship concept enthusiastically proposed by technology giant Rolls-Royce. The robots, it tells us, are coming, although, one suspects, not without some glitches on the way. The sad fate of the South Korean woman, who lay down on her carpet and subsequently had to be rescued by paramedics, after her hair had been ingested by her robot vacuum cleaner, seems to offer a warning to us all.
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