The case for cadet ships

How can the industry solve the sea-time conundrum?

By Michael Grey

It is hard enough to find young people willing to take up a sea career, when there are so many other choices. But we don’t exactly make it easier for them, when there are too few ships available for training purposes and any number of excuses made to avoid taking a couple of cadets on board in order to gain essential sea-time.

And if you have set your heart on a sea career, you probably do not want to have to spend years at a college ashore before you even get near a ship. You probably want to get afloat fast, not just watching ships through the classroom window.

Ideally, newcomers, perhaps after a short safety course, would get a taste of seafaring just as soon as they could be taken aboard. It would probably reduce wastage and generate real enthusiasm. But the reality remains that there is a real shortage of ship operators willing to invest in a new generation and too many around that will merely ‘poach’ people who have been trained by others. It was some years ago that the Indian delegation at IMO, concerned about the shortage of training places afloat, suggested that it should be made mandatory for all ships to have accommodation for perhaps two trainees aboard ship. It was a great idea, as it was practical, seemed reasonable and did address the problem of shortages that everyone saw on the horizon. Sadly, it failed to find any support and was lost forever.

Since then, the prospect of shortages has become ever more critical. The industry lost a lot of good seafarers during the pandemic, who decided, largely because of the way that their lives became so miserable, that a shore side career was to be preferred. But the dilemma of sea-time has never gone away. One of the biggest ship managers in the world let it be known that if an owner would build a ship capable of carrying a decent number of cadets, they would manage it and the cadet’s training for no cost to the owner. That too, seemed a great initiative, but alas, there were no takers.

Cost argument

It is said to be the cost of training, particularly of officers, that discourages any meaningful improvements in this area, with many operators suggesting that these should be paid for by governments and not the ultimate employers. It is also often suggested that the cost of college training has become too expensive, as the syllabus has expanded and the sophistication of shore-based equipment is ever more costly. And simultaneously, there are complaints that the young officers who emerge from the training systems, with their first deck and engine certificates, lack the experience to take a full part in the working of the ship. It is a circular argument, as they lack the experience, because they have been unable to gain this during ever-shorter sea-time spells.

Could cadet ships, which were once used by so many successful companies to train their officers, ever make a comeback, and address these problems? As always, it is the cost of these ships which invariably is cited against such a strategy. Training ships had one major advantage in that they made very sure that their cadets left them with a full grounding in the ‘company’ way of doing things, so that, when qualified and returned to the fleet, they were immediately useful. And there are a few companies which manage to justify them today, feeding properly trained people into their fleets.

In the United States, the main sea training colleges have always managed to operate their own training ships and significantly, four large replacement vessels for this purpose, with Federal funding, are now entering service. Fully equipped for training large numbers of cadets, they will have an important secondary role in emergency and disaster relief, thus justifying their costs. That may be one solution.