A new tier of personnel for technologically advanced ships might steal the cream of maritime jobs from seafarers, IHS Maritime & Trade reports.
Seafarer skills have always had to evolve to meet the advancement of technologies deployed on board. This evolution presents the challenges of training to ensure on board safety and, as crews become inevitably smaller, the challenge of job availability.
As the industry moves towards the potential of remotely controlled - if not completely unmanned - ships and is under pressure to meet tough environmental regulations, the seafaring profession is looking at another transitional phase that presents its own tests and trials for training and employment.
The most current challenge is posed by remote sensoring and automation, flagged up in the Global Marine Technology Trends 2030 report created by Lloyds Register Energy Marine, QinetiQ and the University of Southampton.
Automated ships with sensors producing large amounts of data need personnel on board who have the ability to analyse and make sense of data and the systems required for automation.
These ships still need engineers, "but of a different kind", Lloyds Register Energy Marine spokesman Nick Brown told IHS Maritime.
"Engineers have always been needed in shipping, but the daily operation of ships is likely to place greater reliance on systems and data engineers," Brown specified.
He further commented that industry has to be prepared to train "new generations in a new way," and said companies such as Shell are "leading the way in developing skills that may be blending the role of those at sea and those ashore".
Addressing industry at London's second International Shipping Week this year, Dr Grahaeme Henderson, vice president of shipping and maritime for Shell International Trading and Shipping Co Ltd, described seafarers working on Shell's vessels as "business men and women" who have data analyses ready for him whenever he visits the company's ships.
A spokesperson for Shell clarified to IHS Maritime that the company employs seafarers and add to their skills to meet the company's own standards. The spokesperson explained that seafarer qualifications are the "minimum" and that Shell's own training provides skills "in excess of the requirements laid down by international standards and flag states". In addition, seafarers on board Shell's ships are "supported by technical and commercial subject matter experts ashore".
The spokesperson said all Shell seafarers undergo in-house training programmes "no matter what stage of their career they are at, from apprenticeship and cadet training schemes through to continuous professional development courses".
The company also has specific training programmes to "'retrain oil tanker experienced officers for service on Shell-managed LNG carriers", said the spokesperson.
Professor Ajit Shenoi, director of Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute, agrees with Brown that more systems and data engineers will be needed on board, and sees the future for mariners aboard the global merchant fleet, much as Shell describes its current organisation.
He said, "The way ahead will be a different sort of education - through the working lifetime - where skills and knowledge steps are updated on a regular basis; where they are checked against what new technologies are coming out, so that when they go on board the ships they are ready to operate [the new technologies] safely and well."
The demand on seafarer training institutes will change, "We need to up the game," said Shenoi. "The current system of education will need continual monitoring, with new science and technology aspects injected on an appropriate basis. This will need to be done through consultation among education providers, employers, regulators, professional bodies and governments," he said.
Andrew Linington, director of campaigns and communications for seafarer union Nautilus International, said the union has constantly lobbied to ensure that maritime training keeps up with technological training.
For example, the evolution of the radio officer's role into that of electrotechnical engineer in response to the introduction of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, described by Linington as a "quantum leap in communications".
"We got a system developed in the UK that fed into the discussions at IMO over revisions to the Standards of Training Certification and Watchkeeping convention, which was finally realised in an international system of training certification for electrotechnical engineers," said Linington.
"Our concern is making sure that human issues are not forgotten and that training is developed to ensure that seafarers are properly equipped to deal with the technologies and systems in their workplace," he said.
Linington is concerned, however, that the latest changes will make seafaring dull: "Are [seafarers] destined to be screen watchers and machine minders?" he asked.
On the contrary, Shenoi believes that higher skill sets could mean more enjoyable jobs, "Some say that we are moving away to better jobs where the [skill] requirement would be higher and generally the working conditions would be better," he told IHS Maritime.
However, the rise in skill sets may be quite a dramatic one. Shenoi is aware of "many major naval and shipping asset managers" who are considering recruiting personnel with "PhDs".
He explained, "The subjects of the higher degrees will be those that contain the knowledge and skill sets necessary for the new technologies that will be prevalent." This would throw into uncertainty the value of traditional seafaring skills and the labour of traditional seafarers.
Shenoi conceded, "It is likely that these personnel will need to be trained in some aspects of the ship environment, but they need not be mariners in the conventional sense."
In this view, traditional seafarer jobs do not disappear, "We may lose one type of a job with certain skill sets and require people to be trained to different higher levels of expertise and knowledge."
However, the danger for crews is that if the high-value data analysis roles on board are undertaken by non-mariner PhD-level personnel, the value of seafarer roles, including electrotechnical engineers advanced to data and systems engineers, will be pushed further down the value scale.
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