Urgent review of seafarer training

Teaching has not kept pace with change in the shipping industry, leaving crew ill-equipped to handle challenges

By Carly Fields

This year’s UK Chamber of Shipping conference featured a People Panel, where experts gave their views on the new skills that will be expected of seafarers in the future. The discussions centred around innovation, shipping transition and the urgent need to update seafarer training.

Colin McMurray, group managing director of Stream Marine, kicked off the discussion by noting that tomorrow’s seafarers will need a blend of skills and technology, breaking the former down into three distinct areas: higher cognitive skills – for example, advanced literacy and critical thinking; social and emotional skills – for example, soft skills, advanced negotiation skills and high levels of empathy; and leadership.

Philip Fullerton, managing director of Northern Marine, gave the view from a shipping company perspective. He observed that while traditional training has followed STCW requirements to cover competency skills, increased connectivity with ships and interaction between ship and shore means seafarers need higher levels of IT competence. He called for sizable changes to be made to current training to equip incoming seafarers with the skills they will need. “People lose touch with what we have today,” he said. “Most of the training we do is outside of mandatory training because there is a big gap in mandatory training. I think training should cover much more, with more competency-based criteria and competency reviews, perhaps at five-year intervals.”

He also highlighted the rising importance of sustainability in shipping and the skills that will be needed to manage that, including handling of the proposed new marine fuels, such as ammonia and hydrogen.

Brian Johnson, chief executive of the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency, agreed that the big trends in play at the moment – including new fuels which are “an order of magnitude harder to handle than crude oil” – will bring a step change in seafarer training. “Seafarer education and the way we deliver it – we will have to get used to change at a pace that we have not been used to in the past.

He also recognised that people going to sea are spending less time in the seafaring part of their career and therefore seafarers need to be prepared at the training stage not only for a life at sea, but also for a life onshore.

Key priorities

Changes to seafarer training – within the constraints of STCW – are urgently needed as the industry transitions through a period of great change. For Mr Johnson, these changes need to focus on four key priorities:

  1. Training should be based on a judgment of capability, not time.
  2. Leadership and personal skills should be brought into training.
  3. Greater use of simulation.
  4. Addressing sea-time consistency, improving it and thinking about ongoing college tutoring while the seafarer is at sea.

Meanwhile, Gemma Griffin, vice-president of human resources and crewing at DFDS, called for a focus on leadership and an examination of future career opportunities for seafarers onshore. “We have to do a body of work on the concept of taking a ship-based person into a shore-based environment. We need to ensure that all these fantastically competent people that we have on vessels are trained and can be immersed in the onshore environment,” she said.

Here, Mr Johnson had an interesting suggestion based on his experiences in the Royal Navy. The Navy takes a cyclical approach to seafaring, he explained, where sailors go to sea, come ashore, go to sea and then come ashore in a continuous cycle. Whereas in the UK merchant navy, seafarers are either at sea or onshore, with no rotation. “Giving people a more rounded early career adds real value and would probably improve retention in the sector,” he concluded.