The Able-Skilled Seafarer: Re-envisioning the Seafarer of the Future

SeafarersDiversity, equity, and inclusionTalentWorking conditions

Future Maritime Leaders essay competition winner, Criselle David, predicts that there will be a need for able-skilled seafarers rather than just able-bodied seafarers in the future. To ensure enough seafarers in the future, it is crucial to rebrand the industry now, so that it appeals to the young future generation.

The year is 2050. Cyber-pirates have planted a malware into the systems of MV Cagayan while in transit over the Suez Canal. 2/E Manalo immediately jumps into action to silence the blaring alerts of the control console. His routine scan had flagged a malware embedded into the ship’s navigation system. A quick inspection into the malware’s source code reveals that it had been veering the 24,000 TEU cargo vessel an imperceptible 0.1 degrees off-course over a 2-hour period. The code was a crude but effective SQL injection that he hasn’t encountered since his undergraduate Computer Science courses. He reports to his captain and the ship’s piracy protocols are activated.

In another part of the ship, AB Dela Cruz visually inspects the ship’s instrumentation and double checks the integrity of the logs in his monitor. His muscles relax once he sees all systems are still working as intended.

Ten minutes later, the captain makes an announcement – crisis averted. 2/E Manalo and AB Dela Cruz return to their stations with their hearts still pumping with adrenaline. It’s not every day they get to use their cyber security training.

From Able-Bodied to Able-Skilled Seafarer

Able-bodied seafarers or ABs are one of the most versatile members of the crew – they help in vessel operations, maintenance and safety. These jobs are usually very physically demanding, thus the term able-bodied. But the digitalization of the maritime industry is fast tracking the prominence of smart ships and are therefore redefining the responsibilities of an AB.

Major maritime stakeholder countries like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have anchored their 2050 programs on a digital maritime sector. More and more ship owners and ship managers are migrating their control centers in cloud-based services and platforms, enabling big data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence for decision support and operations. Repetitive tasks would be relegated to AI, self-cleaning and self-healing smart materials would mean less maintenance work, automated systems hold the promise of safer ship operations, but cyber security would become an even bigger consideration. Despite having the same job description, the able-bodied seafarer of 2050 would also have to be able skilled – digitally native, data driven and discerning – to handle the changes in technology.

Bridging the Gap: Transforming Children of Today to Seafarers of the Future

There are two foundational issues that need to be addressed in the next five years in order to achieve the goal of having able-skilled seafarers in 2050: long term recruitment and training and education.

The latest Manpower Report published in 2016 by the International Chamber of Shipping and BIMCO estimates a shortage of 16,500 officers and an oversupply of 119,000 ratings. In the Philippines, despite being home to over 400,000 seafarers or almost one-fourth of the global crew supply, this shortage was especially felt during the height of the pandemic when crew rotation was disrupted by closed ports and movement was limited by travel restrictions. The already strained supply of officers was stretched thin and crewing agencies scrambled to compete for remaining officers.

But even before the pandemic, the Philippines has seen a downtrend on enrolment to tertiary maritime education programs. Since 2013 and 2014, enrolment growth rate only increased by 3% before dropping to -6% in 2015. This contraction is aggravated by the implementation of the K-12 program which disrupted the entry of students to tertiary education by two years. This trend implies that teens and young adults are consciously not choosing a career at sea and suggests quite a significant generational paradigm shift.

A dissertation paper published by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in 2002 outlines two motivations of a Filipino seafarer in choosing the career – financial gain and the sense of adventure life at sea offers. Young men and women were happy to be on board a ship and away from their families 10 months at a time in exchange for a considerable salary and a chance to go around the world for free. With the downtrend in enrollment, it seems like the younger generation no longer finds these two selling propositions attractive, challenging the industry to rethink recruitment.

The digitally-native children of today are highly individualistic with a sense of purpose that is being shaped by the hyper-connected world they are growing up in. If we want to be successful in recruiting the seafarers of the future, we need to start repackaging seafaring into something that appeals and connects to them as a first step. Building touchpoints with age-appropriate targeted content as early in their life as possible is crucial to increase the chances of them choosing a maritime career.

And while the days of seafaring as a family heritage in the Philippines are numbered, the strongest brand ambassadors of the maritime industry should be its existing seafarers. This is where retention and job satisfaction, not just recruitment, plays a major role. As early as 2007, a paper published by the World Maritime University cites inadequate training and education as one of the main reasons of the loss of confidence of seafarers to their job security amidst rapid changes in the industry. Technology is evolving faster than our regulatory bodies can cascade training requirements to educational institutions, creating a skills gap that only gets wider over time. Stronger industry-academe partnerships allow for agile development of training programs and curricula as the industry adjusts and recalibrates operations.

2050 Starts Today

Understanding the motivations of the current generation of seafarers and the generations after them is equally as important as developing a strong education and training curricula. In thirty years, we would have an entirely new generation of seafarers, majority of whom would not have been born today but the core foundation of an able-skilled seafarer can and should be rebuilt and reimagined now.

Criselle Angela David is 29 years old, comes from the Philippines, and works as a Corporate Strategy Manager at PTC Holdings.