Young maritime leaders determined to see the industry improve its approach to human sustainability

Diversity, equity, and inclusionCrew-changeTalentWorking conditionsSafetyMental health

In April 2022, Global Maritime Forum called for young professionals across the global maritime industry to participate in this year’s Future Maritime Leaders essay competition. We asked them how the maritime industry may significantly improve its approach to human sustainability and what issues and challenges need to be addressed before 2030.

We received 188 essays from young maritime leaders from 27 different countries, with a large majority of them from Asia (74%). Countries with the most submissions included India (104 submissions), Philippines (19 submissions), and Greece (11 submissions). In terms of gender ratio, 32 participants were female and 156 were male.

Even if the essay participants came from both onshore and offshore, the vast majority of essays focused on human sustainability at sea. The essays focused on five themes: a broad discussion of human sustainability (44 essays), human wellbeing and human rights (44 essays), future skills & competences (21 essays), diversity, equity & inclusion (13 essays), and human safety (13 essays), and other (53 essays).

Figure 1. Geographical distribution of 2022 essay competition submissions

Figure 1: Geographical distribution of 2022 essay competition submissions

Addressing overall human sustainability – across topics

The human element is an essential condition for the global maritime industry to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, in addition to the two major transformations of decarbonization and digitalization. Therefore, addressing human sustainability challenges is an imperative task for the global maritime industry.

In total, more than 40 essays discussed human sustainability more broadly, as an emerging call from young members of the industry – below the age of 30 – of much needed change following the ongoing crew change crisis, changing Covid-19 regulations, sexual harassment, piracy, human safety concerns, inadequate and outdated training setups, poor mental and physical health on board, concerns of long working hours, payment issues and so on. Many essays have put the general wellbeing of seafarers at heart, paying attention to their limited personal and family time, crew health, skill gap, and their basic human rights.

Multiple essays call for cross-sector collaborative approaches to address the most urgent challenges. Several young leaders for instance called for open digital platforms focused on improving human wellbeing, human rights, and for collectively working to upgrade skills and competences as well as foster a common culture aiming at collectively pursuing more safe working environments for all.

A strong focus on improving human wellbeing at sea - and securing human rights

The majority of the 44 essays addressing human rights and human wellbeing zoomed in on the current state of physical and mental health at sea. Fatigue, exhaustion, and burn-out was discussed in 12 essays, whilst the other 32 essays focused on the challenges posed by the crew change crisis, working hours, and shore leave. Many essays also pointed out that isolation from family, lack of rest time, stress, anxiety, and discrimination are making life at sea increasingly challenging. The lack of prevention and support for mental health issues, combined with poor internet access, are key challenges that need to be urgently and collectively addressed by the industry.

Multiple essays urged the industry to work together on collectively defining and identifying what kind of training is needed (for employees and their management) to ensure crew wellbeing with a particular focus on mental health. Notably the focus should be on how to ensure adequate prevention and response to stress, anxiety, crisis, and suicide thoughts. Practical proposals included the creation of a global mental health hotline, supported by an openly available online platform for training on mental health and human wellbeing to ensure adequate prevention and response.

Furthermore, several essays called for a much more flexible and fluid rotation between sea and shore as a means to improve on overall wellbeing, but more importantly to be able to address the changing needs amongst employees during different stages of their careers, especially when some seafarers would need to be located closer to home. Such proposals mostly focused on the importance of these rotations being implemented for sea-based personnel; but other essays also noted the value of sea-rotations for onshore personnel, which could help build and sustain a ‘one company’ culture between sea and shore.

Finally, in order to address the lack of compliance with work-rest regulations, an open, independent, and collective reporting system was proposed by three essays to ensure transparency on actual working and watch hours performed on board each vessel. One essay proposed the use of blockchain technology to adequately track working hours and payment data of seafarers, to secure fair payment and data validity.

Calling out the industry to improve on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Among the 13 essays discussing different aspects of diversity, equity, and Inclusion, gender imbalance at sea remains the predominant concern. Several essays call out the industry for discriminating female seafarers. Some companies are still reluctant to employ female seafarers, while multiple essays highlight the challenges of sexual harassment and safety threats faced by female seafarers. Other criticisms focused on companies failing to provide female cabins, sanitary bins, and proper personal protective equipment for female seafarers – and a generally safe environment for women on board ships. Other essays called out the industry for taking no responsibility in making it easier for seafarers to balance work and family – or start a family. Most essays pointed at the same root causes, including that the industry was built by and for male employees and that not enough effort has been put into making the industry more attractive to different types of employees.

Enhancing human safety at sea

Human safety was another important concern that was the primary focus of 13 essays, while also being addressed more broadly in multiple other essays. Working conditions on board, including noise, bright lights, heat, vessel movement, and rigid watch schedules, combined with intense and long work hours were pointed out to directly and indirectly lead to operational accidents that potentially endanger lives, property, and even the marine environment. Three essays specifically discussed the importance of crew safety on the journey towards decarbonization.

All 13 essays call for safer work environments for everyone, including female seafarers. Some essays called for better design of living spaces on board, as well as setting up recreational areas and improved social activities, in order to cope with safety risks caused by fatigue. Multiple essays further advocated to strengthen overall marine safety training and research as well as align maritime safety training standards with other international marine disciplines led by the IMO, while another essay highlighted psychological training and improved emergency drills to prepare seafarers for safety crisis. Two essays suggested a monitoring system for seafarers to report accidents, safety concerns, and violations like sexual harassment to an independent global entity to ensure seafarer’s wellbeing and a safe working environment.

Who will take charge for securing the necessary skills and competences of the future?

In the context of a rapidly evolving socio-economic and technological environment, outdated operational technologies in the maritime industry as well as skill gaps (both hard and soft skills) among maritime practitioners were discussed in more than 20 essays.

With young talents from Gen Z (1997-2012) and Millennials (1981-1996) amounting to more than 70% of the total global work force by 2030, the values of these younger generations and how they might clash with the traditional values of the maritime industry was discussed in seven essays. Not just in their approach to work in general, but in particular with their new skills and competences.

Several essays were concerned about the lack of digital skills and competences across the industry, and called for a more ambitious, collective focus on securing much needed upskilling across the board. Some essays proposed a more extended use of virtual reality technologies in training, education, and meeting activities overall, which they argue could enable more efficient and productive onboard communication. One essay suggested to incorporate coding and data analysis into overall maritime training to prepare young talents for digitalization and automation.

Advancing a people-centered future through collaborative effort

When looking at all the submitted essays, it is encouraging how human sustainability is not just an abstract concept for young talents below the age of 30 but is reflected in where they choose to seek employment and who they will eventually decide to work with and for. This is a shift we are already seeing now, with 80% of seafarers in a recent survey conducted by Sailor’s Society listing “how they treat seafarers” as the most important factor when choosing which shipping company to work for (for the remaining, 17% listed “pay” while 3% listed “access to Wi-Fi”).

Being able to provide a more humanly sustainable work environment before 2030, however, requires maritime industry leaders and policymakers to now engage further with these young professionals and changemakers in finding new and more ambitious ways to create a more ethical, human, and attractive maritime industry.