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Tomorrow’s seafarer today

Tomorrow’s seafarer today
June 3, 2024

How can shipping upskill its workforce at sea when the industry is not 100% sure what future ships will look like? The latest from our shipmanagement magazine.

The never-ending evolution of shipping technology requires a workforce in a permanent state of flux, constantly learning and always adapting to requirements from the digitalisation and decarbonisation of the global maritime fleet.

A large number of vessels from the existing fleet are not suitable for retrofitting but, at the same time, International Maritime Organization regulations are imposing carbon emissions targets that will push owners to invest in new and modern vessels already digitalised and running on green fuels, or at least ready for them.

But does the industry have a large enough workforce and, more precisely, does it have a workforce ready to take the challenges of new technologies and alternative fuels entering shipping head on?

The answer for the first part of the question is clearly no as the maritime industry noted a shortage of skilled workers long ago.

This is a trend that has been around for years and is absolutely not a new concept.

“One of the primary reasons for this shortage is the increasing demand for shipping services, with global trade volume constantly rising,” says Dockendale Green Marine Ship Management head Vikrant Gusain.

Green workforce

The story of the second part is pretty much the same. This was pointed out recently during the second day of the inaugural Geneva Dry conference during a session regarding decarbonisation in the dry bulk sector. One of the main points made by one of the panellists, Eman Abdalla, the global operations director at Cargill, was that a major issue for the industry was the availability and the training of seafarers who will be handling future technologies.

“As we witness an increasing number of newbuilds and existing vessels adopting these alternative fuels, the industry must foster collaboration and transparency. This ensures that comprehensive training on managing these new fuels is established well in advance of their operational deployment onboard,” says Olav Nortun, the COO of the Norwegian shipmanagement firm OSM Thome.

DNV data shows a total of 93 new orders for vessels running on alternative fuels have been made in the first four months of 2024, representing a growth of 48% compared to the first four months of 2023.

A total of 23 new orders for alternative fuelled vessels were registered in April alone. Of the total, 12 were for methanol-fuelled vessels which continue to outperform orders for LNG-fuelled vessels with seven orders in April. Four new orders were placed for ammonia-fuelled vessels which brings the total number of orders in 2024 to nine. All these numbers don’t appear as anything significant until factoring in DNV’s estimate for a total of nearly 1,500 vessels using all forms of alternative fuels by 2028.


“In light of covid, seafarers are rethinking life at sea and the risk/reward to it versus having an onshore job closer to their loved ones. Also, technology is developing faster than the crew training possibilities, therefore skills onboard are impacted by the lack of training on new technology,” says John Michael Radziwill, head of dry bulk pool C Transport Maritime and shipowning vehicle GoodBulk.

Handling and working with alternative fuels for propulsion alone requires years of training and onboard experience to see a roster of properly trained individuals, he says noting the seafarer shortages in Europe and some traditional seafaring nations as interest in working onboard wanes.

Part of the problem facing the industry is not being able 100% to assess what shipping will look like, say, in 10 years’ time and the necessary accompanying skillsets.

“Any disruptive regulatory or compliance processes will always raise a concern about staff skilling. This is compounded by the fact that there is no clear vision or guide path on the decarbonisation strategies, on the best alternative fuel, on the availability, supply and efficacy of the fuels. This is a cause of serious concern. More needs to be done on a consolidated basis from the industry. Various entities are pulling in different directions thus preventing focus on staff skilling on a large and focused scale,” says Vinod Sehgal, CEO of SeaQuest Shipmanagement.

Any disruptive regulatory or compliance processes will always raise a concern about staff skilling

Marlon Rono, the president at Magsaysay Maritime, says that the issue of a skilled workforce was definitely a concern and that the response to it needed plenty of urgency.

“We need to urgently recruit, train and develop the next generation of seafarers that will be qualified to handle the next-gen ships being developed and built. We need to start now,” he says.

The need for speed when it comes to solving this problem also is not lost on Jan Meyering, joint managing director of Marlow Navigation, who reckons that the introduction of new technologies in the maritime industry has also widened an existing gap in seafarer training and created new training demands.

“We will need to have much closer interaction with stakeholders, namely maritime academies, the industry and regulators to ensure that our seafarers have all the tools they need to run and operate the modern ships efficiently and safely,” he says.

“Our immediate concern is to have a sufficient supply of skilled workforce to manage the situation today and ensure that we can consistently keep them updated with what is happening in the development arena to slowly improve their skill sets that hopefully would match,” says Vinay Gupta, the managing director of Union Marine Management Services.

He also points towards the lack of a level playing field within the shipping industry, which worries him more than the workforce shortage.

“The wage disparity among tankers and dry cargo ships makes it more lucrative for the cream of the crop moving towards the wet and gas industry,” Gupta says.

Adaptive and resilient

The CEO of Columbia Shipmanagement Mark O’Neill gives a lot of credit to the seafarers of today, saying they are “wonderfully adaptive and resilient” and therefore extremely receptive to lifelong learning, be it concerning the safe handling of new fuels, new technologies or digital optimisation techniques.

He does admit, however, that there is a major need for upskilling and retraining of thousands of seafarers and that crew managers and employers will have to invest considerably in training, be it traditional in-person, hands-on practical training, or e-learning and simulator training.

Wallem Shipmanagement head Ioannis Stefanou somewhat mirrors this sentiment by recognising that the growing demands of the shipping industry are nothing new.

“Seafarers have been adapting to the increasing demands of the profession. Every change in regulation, every follow-up to a major incident, and every technological advancement brings in its wake increasing expectations,” he tells Splash.

He adds that there is enough information available to identify future skill demands for seafarers and shore-based employees.

A few executives polled for this magazine are actually optimistic, excited even, regarding the prospect of the new skills needed in shipping’s future, seeing it as a way to attract the so far unattractable to enter the shipping circle.

“We are excited by the new skills required for tomorrow’s digital and new fuel challenges. This is exactly what we need to attract a new generation of maritime graduates into the industry,” says Andrew Airey, managing director of Bangkok-based shipmanager Highland Maritime.

Simon Frank, vice president of crewing operations and business development at German shipping company NSB Group, tells Splash that “of course” his group’s seafarers are ready and that they can adapt to new tasks.

“Alternative fuels are challenges that we meet with our own certified maritime training centre. With that knowledge, there is no need to be concerned,” he maintains.

Concluding, Mingfa Liu, managing director at IMC Ship Services, says: “Ultimately it is a two-way street. As much as today’s seafarers possess valuable experience, opportunities for continuous learning and adaptation must be provided to tackle the challenges ahead, which in turn will be of mutual benefit for the employer and employees.”

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