A career in maritime? Isn't that just a very big (lonely) office at sea?

01 May 2019 - Emma Mark

A career in maritime? Isn't that just a very big (lonely) office at sea?

There’s been plenty of discussion over the last few years on how to make the Merchant Navy an attractive career choice for young people. We’ve gently mocked the new millennials a few times on these blogs, referencing their inability to be in a given place without a WiFi code. I have little doubt that in the not-too-distant future, the generic greeting from one human to another will be boiled down to “Hi, how are you and can I have your WiFi password?”

But let’s not be so flippant; the introduction of VSAT and communication improvements are not to be underestimated. It helps mariners alleviate the boredom during their down time (such that it is), and most importantly allows them to maintain contact with their family and friends. For those of us with comfortable office jobs who can go home and kiss our children goodnight, we will never understand the undiluted and absolute heartbreaking loneliness of being away from home, away from the ones you love and those that love you. We cannot comprehend how that sense of loss (because that’s effectively what it is) can slowly and surely wear a person down until they are numb, incapable of feeling anything but despair. Whilst communication technology is vitally important, it can have an isolating effect, with many seafarers retiring to their bunks to watch films or surf the internet alone.

Although not heavily reported in the trade press, another factor is in regard to the living conditions onboard that can be likened to those of a British prison. There are repeated and frequent allegations of mariners not being paid and forced to work hours far beyond their contracted duties. All this talk of autonomous shipping will only compound that problem; there will always have to be a human onboard (for the vast majority of vessels) and that human’s workload will have to cover the reduction in manning level. Great if you’re a shipowner. Not so great if you’re the poor bastard working in the engine rooms for 18 hours a day, not being able to remember when you last saw land, let alone your children.

Lili Nguyen from Knect365 wrote an interesting article last year including quotes from the likes of the Nautical Institute, K Line LNG Shipping UK and the Merchant Navy Training Board. All parties had differing opinions on why Gen Z and Millennials weren’t interested in becoming mariners and how the industry could try to change that perception.

Personally, I think KD Adamson, Futurist & CEO, Futurenautics hits the nail on the head. She felt that the younger generations want a purpose with their working lives, and technology has the potential to give them that. Technology is something that is constantly moving and evolving, there is always a new challenge to solve, a new adventure to be had.

Many years ago, having a career in IT was akin to being an Accountant. It was considered dull, boring and geeky. However, thanks to the charms of Silicon Valley demigods such as Steve Jobs, being a geek is now aspirational, though be glad the turtleneck-sweater didn’t catch on.

I agree with Adamson; tech is the career to be in if you want to change the world, whether that be through more eco-friendly fuels for box ships, safer ways to deal with ballast so we don’t destroy any more of our oceans’ sea life or designing more intuitive navigational systems.

But here’s the thing; that’s not being a mariner, not in any true sense of the word. Being a mariner means being at sea, and having spoken to numerous mariners they all say the same thing - the paperwork is a killer. Not literally, but if you’re the 2nd Officer correcting 700 plus paper charts at 4 am when you should be sleeping, it comes pretty close.

Paper is far from dead and buried in our industry. The technology is there for many aspects but for the real nitty-gritty of seafaring, it’s still pen to paper, having barely changed from quill to pig skin as it was for the early navigational charts.

Updating charts, logbooks, garbage record books, noon reports, cargo logbooks: all of these things are paper-based and is one of the biggest turn-offs for potential seafarers. Let’s be honest, if they wanted to push paper around a desk then doing it in a storm with your vessel listing at a stomach-churning number of degrees as each wave hits isn’t exactly attractive as a career prospect.

As Ms Nguyen’s piece suggests, tech is the future and the only way to attract the problem-solving PlayStation generation of young men and women that this industry is desperate for. We need to take a closer look at how we can improve the working conditions of those onboard. As an industry we have to look at ways to simplify the basics before we start trying to introduce ‘Minority Report’ style swiping screens and all the other shiny futuristic stuff that comes with it.

There is much to be done to ensure morale and camaraderie onboard, that rest hours are taken seriously rather than a paperwork exercise, that the day to day tasks are digitalised as much as possible. Not only to reduce the utter tediousness of paperwork but to reduce human error, reduce the time spent on admin tasks and therefore increasing the amount of time crew are available for tasks and social occasions that challenge and better them.

Being a mariner is much like being a nurse or a firefighter. It’s a vocation and dressing it up with glittering promises of glossy, unrealistic tech is just falsifying the reality. Every mariner I’ve ever met knew that their job was critical to our global economic infrastructure and that is an incredible thing to be part of.

The last word has to go to Yuzuru Goto, Managing Director, K Line LNG Shipping UK, who said “I think the main thing that I believe is the purpose of your organisation is basically the ‘why’ – why are you doing what you’re doing? So that people feel that they’re a part of something larger than they can achieve by themselves. I think that’s the most important thing.”

©Intelligent Cargo Systems 2019