Swapping the deep blue for dry land

Many seafarers see a job ashore as the natural progression of their career, but is the grass greener?

By Felicity Landon

There is an accepted narrative around seafarers and the expected pattern of their careers: they serve their time at sea and then, when they fancy it, make the move into maritime-related shore-based employment. Or, from another perspective, the maritime industry depends on a flow of ex-seafarers to work in numerous key roles, across technical, operational and managerial, and in sectors such as law, finance and insurance, among many others.

It sounds straightforward – but what are the realities? Not every seafarer can move effortlessly from a life onboard into a dream job ashore. Making the transition, after many years at sea, to a career and more routine family life on dry land can be an immense upheaval. Paying for living expenses ashore can be a shock after years of having food and accommodation covered on board, and seafarers can be naïve about how much they will earn ashore. Coming ashore isn’t for everyone; some stay only a few months before heading quickly back to sea.

In the UK, the issues were highlighted through Project Ulysses, which aimed to identify the training and skills needed by officers to make a successful transition to shore “and so sustain the UK as the leading maritime centre into the future”.

Support for seafarers coming ashore was a key recommendation, and the Marine Society & Sea Cadets’ (MSSC) Coming Ashore programme was one outcome. The programme provides guidance, mentoring and (if it wasn’t for Covid-19) work experience opportunities for seafarers looking for a maritime profession on land.

Darrell Bate, the MSSC’s director of maritime training and development, says his own recollection of coming ashore was that “I had no idea what to do and I had to find my own way”; he was fortunate to find an opportunity as a junior ship operator, before progressing on to shipbroking and chartering.

Coming Ashore, launched in 2020, is aimed at people who are currently seafaring or have very recently left the sea. In mid-2021, about 70 people were on the programme, supported by a team of eight mentors.

“Primarily it is seafarers looking at the options,” says Bate. “The first stage of mentoring is asking ‘what do you really want?’ and getting them to think through about coming ashore.”

The whole purpose is to retain in the maritime sector the very transferable skills these people have gained at sea, he says. “It is about helping them find where they can best fit in and what roles maritime can offer.”

A lot of people have “completely false expectations”, especially on the money side, says Bate. Adapting to a (usually) lower income and an office environment can be tough. “A lot take a six-month contract and go back to sea afterwards. They haven’t planned it through. If you don’t do your homework, you can get disillusioned and simply go back to what you know.”

Climbing the ranks

Bjørn Højgaard, CEO of Anglo- Eastern Univan, came ashore twice. “I transitioned ashore not because I disliked what I was doing at sea but because there was an opportunity,” he says. “I was working with Maersk and they had a number of jobs ashore which were earmarked for people with seagoing experience – in my case, as a stowage coordinator. That was my first foray into a shore job.”

A couple of years later, he went back to sea. “I had come ashore as a chief officer and I felt it was important to get experience as a Captain, which would give me more options. My advice to those considering coming ashore would be get your last stripe and a couple of ships under your belt, because it opens up more opportunities for you.”

Højgaard says there are plenty of opportunities for seafarers to use the skills they have acquired at sea in a shore role – for example, vessel manager, stowage coordinator, supercargo, ship design. “Depending on the company they work with, that may be more or less formalised. In Anglo-Eastern, more than 50% of our managers have sailed with Anglo- Eastern in the past. We manage ships – so if you have a seagoing background, you have a pretty good start. Also, generally in Anglo-Eastern we like to recruit from within; 80% of recruitment into roles should be from inside the company, and 20% from outside. That is an indication of the value we put on people who come from inside, whether seagoing or not.”

Anglo-Eastern has an appraisal system to identify high achievers and a well- defined training scheme, says Højgaard. “Seafarers who have an interest can get mentor trained to help them make the transition – for example, if they are interested in safety management, they can get guidance from HSQE, or for vessel superintendent/manager roles, they are given assignments with senior people in their fields to assist in drydocking and other tasks.”

Anglo-Eastern also operates a buddy system to provide support for new people ashore for the first six months – “support from someone who has walked in those shoes”, he says. “The first few months after coming ashore are definitely the hardest, as you transition into a different working style, life and family life.”

Try before you commit

Seafarers working for Stolt Tankers are offered the opportunity to ‘try out’ working ashore through the company’s Ship to Shore Pipeline Programme. Some take part in specific projects, while others can provide cover for summer holidays, for example.

“During their employment at sea, people can apply for these short-term positions ashore,” says Igor Segeda, Stolt Tankers’ global manager for sea personnel.

“Our Ship to Shore Pipeline is a solid, structured programme with its own budget, and there are a lot of opportunities. A good example is a major project around ballast water treatment systems we are now working on. Many projects require support from sea personnel and typically we would have a couple of officers from the fleet coming ashore to work on them.”

Spending two months on an office assignment can help seafarers decide whether to come ashore, says Segeda. “Then, when there is an opening for a job, they are already known to the company, and they know what it’s like to work ashore. In a highly specialised shipping company like ours, a lot of shore jobs do require specific Stolt knowledge and expertise.”

Almost everyone in Stolt Tankers’ fleet management has a seafaring background, he points out, and there is a high presence in other areas of the business too.

He agrees, however, that the step from sea to shore is a complicated one. “You change your lifestyle and financial situation completely. It can be difficult to find the right moment for you and your family to make this transition. I know because I made that step myself.

“Through our pipeline programme, if they have at least tried it out a couple of times, they know how to do the different lifestyle. And it isn’t for everyone; some people decide it is better to stay at sea and others come ashore for years and finally decide to go back to seagoing.”

Staying ashore brings the opportunity to see family every day; but others prefer the routine of being at sea for several months, then spending an extended period at home completely allocated to the family, he says.

In the end, people decide for themselves what is important, says Segeda. Some move right out of shipping. As ships and their IT infrastructure become more complex and sophisticated, the skill sets and competences required on board do give seafarers a wider choice of careers ashore.

However, money is a major factor, especially in the current global economy. “Working on board ships pays attractive money, and that is a holding point for many people.”

Defined career path

Ship manager Thome encourages its seafarers, if they are considering a career ashore, to take up a position within the organisation, says Thome chief human resources officer Simon Frank.

“We have some earmarked positions to introduce seafarers into. By getting the seafarers in who have been on our ships and worked with our systems, we get an already known and introduced employee into a position ashore and that is a great advantage for the company,” he says.

Thome has a career path that is well defined for the seafarer; he or she will know when they are promoted to the different ranks on board, that there will be corresponding positions open in the company if they mean to pursue a career onshore.

Frank says that at Thome, and typically across the industry, at least 80% of certain functions would be covered by seafarers – typically the vessel manager, technical superintendent and marine superintendent roles, which are very operational. “If we need a new superintendent and can’t get one from our own fleet, the second best is from another fleet.”

A technical superintendent would typically have responsibility for four vessels, he says – “i.e., becoming a manager of people in the position he was in before – so there is a natural promotion process in moving into that role.”

The topic of working ashore, the framework and what is required is always a popular feature for seafarers at Thome’s officer conferences, says Frank.

“My impression is that the seafarers that go ashore are typically the most ambitious and want to advance their career. At sea you can advance quite quickly to be a captain – then you hit a ceiling. Maybe you can be a senior captain but the job is the same. So some feel there must be more.”

But there is a catch. Yes, there are opportunities to progress in a shore role, and some work their way up to the top, if they have the technical competence and also the personal skill. But not everyone can be promoted.

Two-track approach

Different skills can take people on other paths and that has prompted Thome to create a two-track system.

“Some we want to develop in the managerial track. If they want to advance from the position of technical superintendent, they would progress into a fleet group manager role, looking after a group of four or five technical superintendents, then into a manager’s position.

“However, we want to step away from everyone focusing on that direction. That is the way they look, but not everyone has the managerial skill sets required. We have created a different path for them – a professional path where they become specialists more than managers.

“From our perspective, there is a lot of specialism going on in our industry, across many technologies such as scrubbers, new fuel types, more diversified types of engines, etc., and there are a lot of qualification and competence pressures. If we don’t have specialists that develop skill sets in these different segments, then we don’t get the best of our people. It is about redirecting some of them.”

Mindsets may have to be changed, he acknowledges, but it could be a real positive for people who are frustrated when they don’t get promoted up the managerial ladder. We are excited about this new framework. We are trying to have the conversation: ‘maybe you could reconsider and we can help you’.”

Different options

He is also keen to emphasise that it’s not all about coming ashore.

“We benefit in our industry from having people who never could dream of giving up their job at sea. They have a personality and family life that fits the model of being a seafarer, which is very different from the model of working ashore.

“Typically when a seafarer is at home, they stay for three months and don’t work. They treasure these periods. I have spoken to many who have been shocked about the challenges and diversity of the shore job. Some go back to sea after a couple of years because the transition is too big.”

Højgaard agrees that life at sea is not for everybody, but likewise life ashore. “I have seen people come ashore for five years and then decide to go back to sea and have a long career as a captain. Many who haven’t been to sea pity seafarers and think it must be so difficult. But for many people it is a great opportunity – a good job where you are amazingly independent, the days are never the same, you earn good money and have long periods of time at home to spend on your own interests.

“Everyone has to find what is best for them. I would never say the only way to have a long and glorious career is to come ashore – that isn’t the case.”