Amidst a rising demand, the challenge of securing a sustainable workforce has intensified. For the maritime industry to thrive long-term, it must find solutions to address crew recruitment and retention challenges, argues Mimi Schuppler, VIKAND’s Director, Engagement & Human Sustainability.
ith 90% of global goods transported by sea, commercial shipping remains the clear leader in trade transportation. Yachting and cruising are also experiencing unprecedented demand, with the yachting industry doubling and cruise passengers increasing by 90% over the past two decades.
The talent race has gone global
In recent decades, crew recruitment efforts have shifted away from traditional sources like Europe, North America and Japan to primarily Asian nations, including the Philippines, China and India. Continued decarbonisation, digitisation and automation are also pushing the maritime industry into competition for computer science and engineering graduates.
Today’s skilled workers have many choices when it comes to high-tech shoreside roles. This makes it challenging for maritime companies to recruit qualified candidates. Winning the talent race will require a unified effort among maritime stakeholders to make our industry a more attractive place to work, from wages to lifestyle.
Areas where the industry can improve
A key part of changing the future of maritime labour will be improving the industry’s public image. As industry insiders, we know that seafaring offers fantastic career possibilities, including opportunities to travel, development of leadership skills, working with talented people from diverse cultures, advancing to higher-level roles, and even switching to one of the many shoreside roles that keep maritime operations moving.
We also know there’s never been a more exciting time to work in the industry, as maritime companies grow and make unprecedented changes to their environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) practices.
However, a vocal minority of dissatisfied crew continues to fuel negative press. Their issues include long deployments, outdated recruitment practices, exploitation by crewing agencies, uncompetitive salaries and poor HR practices, such as unfair promotions and organisational injustice.
Currently, there’s a high rate of attrition among officers, and crew members in general are spending fewer years at sea before transitioning to shoreside jobs. This may be due to a lack of career progression at sea, desire for family life, increased demand for workers in well-paid shoreside roles, stressful working conditions at sea, unfair contracts, unequal treatment based on gender and nationality, or other factors.
Crew members may also face limited shore leave, and limited access to internet, phone and entertainment.
As current crew members age, younger candidates from Generations Y and Z are showing less interest in working at sea. Their career needs and expectations depart significantly from those of older colleagues, reflecting a growing desire for meaningful work in a safe and respectful environment.
Furthermore, some 10,000 employees a year lose their job at sea due to failed medical exams. To compensate, the industry often promotes less experienced people to senior positions, which can increase risk. Medical claims for crew injuries are growing in both frequency and severity, with 20% of ships worldwide averaging at least one medical diversion each year.
The situation has led the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) to predict a shortfall of 90,000 trained officers by 2026. Now more than ever, our industry needs to focus on new ways to attract healthy, qualified workers.
It’s time to invest in real solutions
For maritime operators to attract talent that can sustain the industry, drastic steps must be taken. We must revamp and modernise the image of seafaring from rigid and hierarchical to a more welcoming, nurturing environment that offers equitable treatment of all people, regardless of race, gender and culture.
This begins with improving living and working conditions for crew, which includes a greater focus on physical and mental wellness, better facilities, access to physical and mental healthcare, reduced stress, and a more secure work environment with shorter deployments and better career prospects.And as the internet and mobile devices become ever more indispensable to daily life, it is critical for crew members to have reliable internet access for keeping in touch with family, maintaining healthy social connections, seeking telehealth support, enjoying personal entertainment, intellectual enrichment and more.
Seafaring is still problematic for women
Another critical step is creating a culture of respect, fairness and inclusion at sea. Operators must have zero tolerance for discrimination, bullying and harassment, with safe and effective ways for workers to seek assistance without fear of retribution.
According to a WISTA survey, just 7% of women who reported incidents of sexual assault and harrassment (SASH) to superior officers were satisfied with the outcome. It also found high rates of gender-based bullying and harassment. Nearly 60% of women reported gender-based discrimination and 66% agreed that male employees harassed and intimidated female coworkers. For those in the shipping and industrial sectors, 25% said they commonly experienced physical and sexual harassment.
An All Aboard Alliance report titled “15 Key Pain Points for Women at Sea” found that many women feel they have to outperform male colleagues to be seen as competent. They also reported unequal access to training and opportunities, social isolation, poor support for family planning and maternity leave, and an onboard life that doesn’t feel designed for them, from a private place to change to equipment that fits their bodies.
Recruitment efforts need to evolve
Many shipping operators do take care of their crew members, offering healthcare, internet access, good food, camaraderie and a positive, inclusive onboard environment. These companies should be highlighted in recruitment efforts. And while the rest of the industry works toward this level of care, the next step is to modernise the recruitment process. The maritime industry must make efforts to:
- Increase awareness of maritime careers and their benefits.
- Boost recruitment in schools and colleges (including non-maritime).
- Use social media to shine a spotlight on fantastic opportunities within the maritime industry.
- Set up training programs with maritime schools to build talent.
- Implement measures to retain cadets and ensure a positive and safe experience.
- Increase access to job opportunities and promotions for historically underrepresented workers, such as females.
This last point is especially important. One concrete measure of progress in diversity, equity and inclusion will be more women in leadership roles. As an added benefit, we know from surveys that women in positions of power are less likely to experience sexual assault and harrassment. They would also be empowered to protect entry-level females, who are the demographic most likely to face gender-based discrimination at sea.
What are our next steps as an industry?
The future of seafaring depends on our ability to attract great talent. Together, we must change the maritime industry’s public image by promoting visibility of everything that makes this a great career choice. Bad news travels fast, so we must work hard to make good news travel even faster.
Change means getting out of our comfort zone, reaching further and investing in ways to inspire the next generation of seafarers. The coming decades could bring exciting transformations to ESG policies, operations, labour practices and more. If our industry can unite around this vision, then a promising future awaits maritime workers.
The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.